Review: Strong Effects Play Second Fiddle to Patriotism in THE ADMIRAL: ROARING CURRENTS

Contributor; Seoul, South Korea (@pierceconran)
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Review: Strong Effects Play Second Fiddle to Patriotism in THE ADMIRAL: ROARING CURRENTS

When making films based on significant milestones in a country's history, nationalism can be a great asset in a filmmaker's arsenal but it's also a tool that must be handled carefully, as too much patriotic bombast can mar an otherwise captivating story. Alas, the new period epic The Admiral: Roaring Currents, which chronicles one of Korea's most famed victorious, falls into that category. Formidable effects and a fascinating historical event, akin to a Korean version of 300 on boats, plays second fiddle to sensationalized heroism in this epic war reenactment.

Roaring Currents is the big screen treatment of Admiral Yi Sun-shin and the Battle of Myeongnyang, when he commanded a small fleet of 13 ships to victory against the Imperial Japanese navy's 333 vessels. Following a number of successful campaigns, Admiral Yi was stripped of his title when he refused to follow orders that he deemed reckless. After a crushing defeat that saw the Korean fleet all but decimated, Admiral Yi was reinstated, faced with the daunting task of guiding a small group of warships into the battle against the mighty Japanese fleet, led by the ruthless Admiral Kurushima.

Yi Sun-shin is one of Korea's most celebrated historical figures and the Battle of Myeongnyang one of the nation's proudest moments, but before now it has never been memorialized on film. The simple reason for this is that before 2014, the Korean film industry wasn't equipped to realize a film on this scale, particularly one that would rely so heavily on visual effects. From a technical standpoint, Korean cinema has seen great advances in the last decade but it was only a short while ago that VFX became sophisticated enough to play a large role in feature films. As recently as 2006, The Host paved the way for advanced CGI in Korean productions (though back then VFX work was still being outsourced to foreign firms).

Roaring Currents, much like last year's commercial flop but technical triumph Mr. Go, showcases how far Korea's visual technicians have come. Flurries of cannonballs and arrows soar through the air, over, between and through hundreds of intricately detailed 16th century war ships. The chaos of war is palpable, as bursts of splinters and tufts of smoke add texture to the dense topography of the battle scenes. With so many moving parts, the film runs the risk of becoming a blur but director Kim Han-min, already experience in period action fare following 2011's War of the Arrows, keeps the sprawling chaos tight and is able to guide us through the complicated geography of the large scale naval manoeuvres succinctly.

While the film excels in the more complicated elements of its gigantic set pieces, there is the sense that this comes at the expense of traditional mise-en-scene. Compared to other recent local period films, such as Masquerade or The Face Reader, the cinematography here is nowhere near as crisp. When filming a crowded battle this may be a necessary evil but even in the quieter first hour, which sets up the battle of the latter half, the functional camerawork and editing leave something to be desired.

Where the film does impress, beyond VFX, is in its crisp sound design and ornate costumes. Dense and immersive, the sound throws the spectator right into the thick of the battle, though at times some of the foley work, such as cannon fire, have noticeably been looped. The detailed battle armor costumes, ornate and detailed, are also an impressive sight. Some of the Japanese outfits go a touch overboard but are nonetheless exquisite.

Standing tall as Admiral Yi is Choi Min-sik, likely the only star who could have filled such large shoes. With solemn gravitas and aided by a battalion of low-angle shots, the veteran ably strikes the hero pose that he is often called upon to do. Though he captures the Admiral's legendary heroism this performance lacks the depth and nuance that has made Choi the respected thespian he is. Meanwhile, speaking only in passable Japanese and shooting daggers out of his eyes under his ostentation headdress, Ryu Seung-ryong emits a villainous air, but his is more caricature than a character.

Writing as a foreigner (I say that since local viewers' take on this film will likely be very different to my own) I feel I should point out the film's excessive patriotism. All of the Korean characters, down to small villagers, are portrayed as heroes and the film is littered with instances of extraordinary courage and sacrifice. On the flip-side, Japanese characters are all portrayed as villains, not merely enemies. The only Japanese soldier shown in a positive light is one who defects to the Korean side. Perplexingly, the film features only one female character of any note, a mute woman who can only emit a tremulous wail in her most important scene.

Navigating from a borderline tedious first half to the overweening nationalism of its bombastic crux, The Admiral: Roaring Currents is a formidable technical display sorely lacking in subtlety. However, in a country still reeling in the wake of the Sewol ferry disaster, it has turned out to be just the ticket for local viewers seeking a morale boost, as it blew almost every box office record to smithereens in its colossal debut.

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choi min-sik명량이순신kim han-minkoreakorean cinemamyeongnyangnaval warperiod filmroaring currentsryu seung-ryongyi sun-shin
Roger WestonAugust 3, 2014 6:36 PM

I'd love to see this movie. I wrote about Admiral Yi in The Golden Catch. I first learned about him when I lived in Korea in the 90s. This is an amazing story. Will it be available in the US on DVD?

wangkon936August 4, 2014 11:22 AM
"...too much patriotic bombast can mar an otherwise captivating story."

Interestingly, a Persian or Arab would say the same thing about 300.

wangkon936August 4, 2014 11:26 AM
"... a formidable technical display sorely lacking in subtlety."

That's a good quote to describe Koreans in general... ;)

Pierce ConranAugust 5, 2014 5:29 AM

Actually it's hitting US screens this month. Will open in LA on the 8th, then a bunch of other places on the 15th. Click the 'Theaters' button in the below link to see if it's playing near you:

Pierce ConranAugust 5, 2014 5:30 AM

Certainly true for a number of films, but it also applies to most big-budget commercial fare around the world. This is what happens when you try to please too many people...

Roger WestonAugust 5, 2014 6:40 PM

Good to know. Thank you.

wangkon936August 6, 2014 2:26 PM

Also describes Korean food rather well. Nice technical achievement but definitely lacks subtlety... ;)

antman1August 8, 2014 12:08 PM

As opposed to hot dogs.

moreshige .August 18, 2014 10:57 AM

If you want an in-depth view of Yi-Soon-shin, you have to actually look at other media like the TV-drama "The immortal Yi Sun-sin" (2005) or read books on the war like "Imjin War" by Samuel Hawley. Then one should read primary sources like Nanjung IIgi" (Yi sun shin's war diary) or Yu Songnyong's "Book of Corrections". Surprisingly, all three levels (a TV source, a history written by a western author, and primary sources) seem to converge very well. And I could see why this reviewer (Pierce Conran) who doesn't really know the actual history would think this is " too much patriotic bombast". The Japanese aggressors were portrayed as evil because they were actually evil or did evil things. Look up "Mimizuka" as one example. If this was a movie about Hiltler ,German commanders or the Holocaust, I'm pretty sure those characters will be portrayed as "evil". The Imjin War was more in line with WW2 or Star Wars in terms of "Good vs Evil" characterizations rather than Vietnam where we question both the morals and motives of both sides of the war.

moreshige .August 18, 2014 10:59 AM

Then you have never tried my mother's kimchi.

wangkon936August 18, 2014 5:02 PM

To a Westerner Hitler and Nazi Germany could be evil, but no other country could be similarly evil. That's ignorance.

Even Japanese Buddhist monks who traveled to Korea during this war admitted that the landscape of Korea looked like hell and there was widespread devastation across the land.

green teaAugust 19, 2014 2:38 AM

[Battle of Myeongnyang] with Seol Min-seok

Roger WestonAugust 19, 2014 3:45 AM

Great response, moreshige. The Japanese have a history of committing cultural genocide on Korea.

William SchwartzAugust 24, 2014 12:07 AM

"All of the Korean characters, down to small villagers, are portrayed as heroes and the film is littered with instances of extraordinary courage and sacrifice."

Huh? Until the climax nearly all of the Koreans refuse to obey Admiral Yi's orders out of sheer cowardice. One of them even tries to assassinate him. That's not even getting into the opening which clearly establishes that Admiral Yi was screwed over for political reasons into being tortured by his own people, or the uninspiring conversations with his son where the Admiral practically admits Korea (the country) probably isn't even worth saving.

I can get where you're coming from with everything else but that line bears no approximation to the film I saw at all.

Pierce ConranSeptember 4, 2014 5:46 AM

Though by no means a scholar, I'm not oblivious to the history of this period. I live in Korea and my interest in the country's culture and history is more than just a passing fancy.

The Japanese were certainly the aggressors and deserved to be portrayed as such but I wasn't keen on what I felt to be caricatured representations of courageous locals versus heartless invaders. Many war films from other counties can be accused of the same bias, but more than most this felt out of tune to me and seemed too content to tap into a racial distrust that exists in the country. I would have preferred a more complex portrayal, on both sides.

Pierce ConranSeptember 4, 2014 5:51 AM

It's true that more is at play in the battle's set up, but in the end the above is the destination that the characters arrive at. That line applies particularly to the last half hour, and to me that's the takeaway.

William SchwartzSeptember 4, 2014 6:53 PM

That sounds more like a criticism of the war epic in general than the movie in particular. I can think of no way this film could have addressed that point short of turning into a deconstruction ala Inglorious Basterds, but that would have turned it into a completely different movie.