Films about the Joseon era had been among the most popular in S. Korea for years now, particularly through their combination of blockbuster production values and historic setting. This tendency found its apogee in “The Admiral”, a 2014 film based on the historical Battle of Myeongnyang, which recorded 10 million viewers in 12 days, setting a record for achieving 10 million viewers in the shortest amount of time, and in the process becoming the highest grossing film of all time in S. Korea, a place it still holds.
The story begins with the events leading to the naval battle, which, actually, became the duel between two men: Joseon admiral Yi Sun-sin and Kusushima Michifusa, whom Hideyoshi Toyotomi sent to Joseon to take over the navy. In the beginning of the film, both men have a number of issues to deal with. Yi Sun-sin has been just released from prison after the disaster at Chilcheollyang, which left the Joseon naval force with just 12 ships, and a half built turtle, the most feared among the Joseon vessels. Furthermore, he has to face his higher ups, who consider the battle at the sea a lost one, and want to focus on the battles in the mainland. Eventually, the legendary admiral manages to amass around him the crew for the 12 ships and to reach the Myeongnyang Strait, an area notorious for its strong and treacherous currents, which the Japanese intend to cross on their way to the capital. Kusushima on the other hand, who is known as the “Pirate King: among the Japanese army, has to face the other admiral’s distrust and lack of sympathy. However, with a fleet that exceeds the Joseon one in a 10 to 1ratio, he also arrives at the straits and the battle begins.
Kim Han-min had a previews experience in Joseon films through his 2011 production, “War of the Arrows”, and he implement all of his acquired knowledge to the “Admiral”, a production of truly epic proportions. In that fashion, the work done in the production values of the movie is truly impressive. Starting with the costumes, which portray the era as accurately as possible in both opposing parties, and continuing to the ships, weapons and the general depiction of the era, the art direction of Jang Chun-seop is a thing of wonder. Kim Han-min highlights repeatedly his ability to direct a number of actors simultaneously on screen, with the help of Kim Chang-ju’s editing, which retains a rather fast rhythm throughout the film’s duration, and Kim Tae-song’s cinematography, which presents a number of outstanding images. Kim is also responsible for the epic score of the movie that fits the general aesthetics of the production perfectly. The SFX department has also done an impervious job, particularly in the movement of the different vessels. Lastly, the work done in the sound department, headed by Choi Tae-young is also impressive, with the sounds of bullets and arrows, and some moments of meaningful, complete silence highlighting this prowess.
All of the above elements find their apogee in the main battle scene, which lasts for more than hour, and is easy to say, that is one of the most elaborate ever to appear on cinema. The sequence soars with agony from the first minute, through the initial skirmishes, to the duel involving two snipers (a Japanese one with a shotgun and a Joseon with a bow) to the moment Kusushima enters the battle, and to the final outcome, as it highlights all the technical aspects described in the previous paragraph and the elaborate direction of Kim Han-min.
Some lack of realism, however, could not be missing, as the Koreans are presented mostly as heroes while the Japanese as despicable, constantly cunning people. In that fashion, Kim Han-min gave the audience exactly what they wanted to see, additionally implementing some drama and some romance, and this is an additional factor that explains the film’s success.
Choi Min-shik gives a majestic performance as Yi Sun-sin, a military genius with an unwavering adherence to discipline and his purpose, to the point he does not hesitate to use extreme means against his own subordinates to achieve his goals. The film revolves around him, and he delivers to the fullest. Ryu Seung-ryong as Kurushima is also good, in a rather laconic role that is mostly based on his eyes and body stance rather than words. In general, most of the actors perform in a highly theatrical fashion, with grand gestures and deep voices, in a tactic that also fits the film perfectly.
“The Admiral: Roaring Currents” is an impressive film that manages to implement its large budget to the fullest, and in the process becoming utterly entertaining. Fans of Joseon and epic action films in general are bound to have a blast.