Thursday, May 31, 2018

"The Admiral: Roaring Currents" (a.k.a. "Myeongnyang"): review

2014's "The Admiral" is a Korean historical drama directed by Kim Han-min and starring Choi Min-shik as legendary admiral Yi Sun-shin. The movie's Korean title, which is simply "Myeongnyang (명량)," says it all: the film deals exclusively with Yi's victory, using only 12 vessels, over the 333-strong* Japanese fleet in 1597—arguably the most famous naval battle in Korean history: the Battle of Myeongnyang. As the story begins, Japanese forces have already been pushing confidently north toward Hanseong (one of several old names for Seoul; this was the name used during the Joseon period) while Yi's men, at the south coast, are thoroughly demoralized. Facing internal problems of discipline, a demand from the king to give up naval operations and shunt his men to the defense of Hanseong, and a Japanese navy with twenty-eight times his number of ships, Yi must devise a plan to stop the Japanese fleet from pushing north to join the Japanese army's inexorable advance. He does so by using his knowledge of terrain and tides to his advantage, drawing the vanguard of the Japanese fleet into a disastrous encounter with a mighty whirlpool. Yi's battle, in its clever use of nature and its creation of bottlenecks, bears some resemblance to the famous Battle of Thermopylae, immortalized and stylized in the movie "300." In the end, the Koreans are victorious, and against all odds, the Japanese attack is broken.

"The Admiral" was a smash hit in Korea, breaking any number of box-office records. From this foreigner's perspective, the movie is unabashedly nationalistic, but as an American who has seen plenty of Hollywood action films in which the US is the good guy and everyone else is the bad guy, I can't blame Korea for putting out a movie with similarly patriotic pretensions. There were, in fact, some moments in the film during which I could see what Yi's plans were, and I ended up cheering. (The initial Korean attack against the Japanese vanguard reminded me of the "Game of Thrones" scene now known as The Battle of the Blackwater, in which a row of ships was destroyed, thus creating a bottleneck that hampered the rest of the fleet. I don't know how historically accurate the scene in "The Admiral" was, but it was definitely crafted as a "cheer" moment. The battle scenes tended to switch back and forth between live action and CGI; the special effects for the churning water, showcasing the awesome power of Mother Nature, were excellent, but there were some ship-to-ship battle scenes whose effects could have used a few extra bucks. And as with so many Korean dramas, "The Admiral" was dragged down by far too much melodrama, which Koreans eat up, but which doesn't translate well for international audiences. Much of the screaming and crying and faraway-looks-before-dying made me do little more than roll my eyes. Luckily, Choi Min-shik didn't overact at all; he was the star of this film, and he carried the weight of the plot with believable gravitas. The beginning of the film establishes that Yi is old, coughing up blood, and possibly dying (this battle took place in 1597; Yi died after being shot the following year); we feel the pressure on Admiral Yi to win this battle, given how much is at stake on the peninsula.

For about two-thirds of its run time, "The Admiral" focuses only on the battle of Myeongnyang, and mainly from the Korean side, although it shows a few smug and sinister Japanese characters as well (these were, in reality, Korean actors speaking Korean-accented Japanese). I have to wonder why the movie chose to focus so closely on this one battle instead of on the life of Yi Sun-shin, who had led a very interesting life, indeed. I came away liking the character of Yi, as well as liking some of the men loyal to him. That aspect of the movie brought home the idea that, in any military operation, the chain of command is absolutely paramount: Yi's plans would never have worked had there been any doubters or cowards (we see Yi deal brutal justice to one captured deserter). Alas, I also came away wishing the movie had expanded the scope of its story to the whole of Yi's life, with more focus on his tactical and strategic genius, which was easily at the level of a General Patton or an Admiral Nelson. I wish the film had been more forthcoming about some of Yi's most important plans, which are revealed to us only as the plans unfold and not before. I wish the melodrama could have been toned down to imbue the film with more grim dignity and less weepy sentimentality.

Taken as a whole, "The Admiral" is a good but very flawed retelling of a famous moment in Korean history. I'll cautiously recommend it to you, but do be prepared for a big, treacly faceful of over-the-top Korean theatricality.

*The actual number of Japanese vessels was a little over 130, and not all of those vessels were fighting ships. Still, as the Wikipedia article on Yi's life points out, he experienced around 23 engagements with the Japanese, and in most cases, he was outnumbered and outgunned, but still victorious. That's impressive by anybody's reckoning, I should think.

1 comment:

Charles said...

That's a rather short review for an interminably long film.

Actually, all I remember is wanting to scream at the screen about how snipers could not exist before rifling was even invented!

I think the film's popularity had more to do with the situation in Korea at the time than the film itself (it came out a few months after the Sewol tragedy, and the nation really needed something to rally around). The film definitely didn't deserve as much success as it ended up enjoying--it's still the highest grossing Korean film ever, despite being nowhere near the best. I wouldn't even put it in the same province as a top-ten list.