“Admiral: Roaring Currents” Review (and thoughts on Korean Cinema)

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This is my review of The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량), and my first ever movie review on this blog. I saw this a couple of weeks ago, but as with most aspects of my life, I resorted to pushing off work for later.

The Admiral was the fictional retelling of the Battle of Myeongnyang (1597), part of a bigger war between Korea’s Joseon Dynasty and Japan, in which a small fleet of 13 Korean ships (12 in the movie) fought off and defeated the 133-ship Japanese invasion fleet (330 ships in the movie, which was the actual number of total ships in real life but with only 133 of them going to Myeongnyang). The Korean naval forces were led to victory by Admiral Yi Sun-shin, who is also the central character of this film.  In the film, this victory is achieved through the help of a spy within the Japanese ranks (who is entangled in a rather unnecessary love subplot that I’ll address later), and careful naval tactics that took advantage of the Myeongnyang Strait and its fearsome currents.

Myeongnyang was Yi’s greatest victory, a strong source of Korean pride, and has also been a staple in both Korean film and television. This most recent version of Yi’s story was quite an impressive feat in Korean cinema, just as the real historical victory was a feat in Korean naval history.

The first thing I want to address regarding the film is the truly epic nature of the naval battles, which are portrayed extremely realistically. In fact, I would venture as to say that they are almost on par with those of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The action scenes were very convincingly choreographed as well. Roaring Currents demonstrates the growing strength of Korean cinema, and the rising number of similar high budget movies with the box office successes to show for it.

Although the movie does feel a bit long at certain points, there aren’t too many major issues with pacing. Any major weaknesses with the pacing of the first half, are more than made up by the second half of the movie. The acting felt spot on: if you’ve seen the cult favorite, Oldboy, or the recent American film, Lucy, then you know what to expect from the lead actor, Choi Min-sik (albeit in a significantly different role). The supporting actors and cast did a great job conveying the fear the actual soldiers must have felt, going up against impossible odds. By the way, this idea of combating and eventually defeating an enemy that greatly outnumbered them made the plot very 300-esque. In terms of historical accuracy, the film was more or less on point from what my research has told me. For specific comparisons between the film and the actual historic battle, check out this interesting interview on hancinema.net.

There were a few issues I had with the film. The film did err a tad bit too much on the side of anti-Japanese sentiments, which, I understand where its coming from, due to Korea’s past relations with Japan, but perhaps may not have a place in Korean cinema if Koreans hope to give their films wider international appeal. Another minor aspect that I thought was a bit much, was a scene close to the end, where the men below the deck of the ship celebrate their victory, and ask each other if they’ll be remembered by history. It is possible to pander too much to national pride. My biggest problem with the film was the random undeveloped love sub plot. At the risk of giving spoilers to whatever soul was unfortunate enough to have stumbled across my blog, I won’t go into specifics. But I will say that the love side story felt very out of place, and a bit too forced into the plot.

Random love stories are rather characteristic of both Korean film and TV dramas. As a Korean myself, I understand how much Koreans love melodrama in their stories. However, I think that there is a time and place for such stories, and this film wasn’t one of them (at least not in the way it was told). In Roaring Currents, the love story is shown at the beginning of the movie randomly, and is forgotten until the very end of the movie, where we have a rather deus ex machina-style lover who saves the day. This was very reminiscent of a similar problem I noticed with a Korean blockbuster that I saw in 2009, called Haeundae (해운대). Haeundae was supposed to be a natural disaster movie, similar to The Day After Tomorrow, where a Tsunami devastates a popular tourist destination. Instead, Haeundae devoted more than an hour on an unimportant love story (enough to perhaps make a spin-off television series about). I think that for Korean film to truly expand beyond Asia and see even bigger successes globally, it needs to shed its predilection for cheesy love stories. I’m not saying that they should get rid of them, just that they don’t need to be in everything. Leave those stories for the K-dramas that people love so much.

Overall, I would highly recommend The Admiral: Roaring Currents to fans of Korean films, history, or action. Despite a couple of minor quips, the film as a whole was very fun to watch, and gives me high hopes for the future of Korean cinema.

Check out the trailer!

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