THE ADMIRAL: ROARING CURRENTS (2014)
Hyperbolic historical retelling sees a surly Choi Min-sik and his fleet of 12 warships battling the Japanese uber-navy’s 300-plus vessels
History is written by the victors – so the cliché goes – but is more specifically written here by Kim Han-min as he follows up 2011’s War of the Arrows with another pitch in the period-action-war space.
The liberty that victory allows in yarn-spinning is more than evident when the real-life 16th century heroics of Admiral Yi Sun Sin are unpacked in action-zooming and special effects-laden cinema glory. An unabashed two-hours-plus missive that can be comprehended best by two chest-beating words: ‘Korea Strong!’.
Self-aware enough of this to not matter, The Admiral starts with a brief elevator pitch summary of Admiral Yi’s (Choi Min-sik – Oldboy, I Saw the Devil) rise to naval power, imprisonment and torture at his government’s hands, before a release and return to service.
This fast-forward approach is because this is very much a film about a single historical event – the Battle of Myeongnyang which took place around 1597, and represents the apex of Admiral Yi’s wily leadership and ability to tackle vast Japanese muscle with Korean pluck.
The Japanese seem confident that their size advantage will offer an easy path to Hansong to capture King Seonjo. However, news of the return Admiral Yi has them mildly rattled of some secret plan to catch them out and appoint ‘pirate king’ Wakisaka Yasuharu as a curveball navel leader.
Admiral Yi himself is cutting an unstable figure, with moral of his men bottoming out, he seems a leader with a death wish that his men may have to fulfil with him (like a Colonel Kurtz still on the front line).
With defeat, and certain death, seemingly the only option on the Korean menu, Yi keeps his plans close to his chest as they prepare for the Japanese onslaught. With their only turtle ship burned before battle, they are left with just 12 warships to the tackle the 333 Japanese ones approaching.
It is hoped that a narrow strait with a strong current and whirlpool might provide a tactical advantage when the Japanese arrive and we swiftly march onto the film’s main push – an extended David and Goliath-like battle between Yi’s smart organisation and Japanese mass.
Choi Min-sik is perfectly cast as the crazed and inspiration Admiral Yi, while the consume design has all the majesty the film requires.
While The Admiral is based on historical events, with several strokes of further details added, it does ask us to suspend much belief in what is possible for dramatic purpose. The hook of staring down obvious defeat and twisting free at the final moment furnishes almost the entire battle. As if your need to suspend believability has not already been tested there is then a long range conversation between a married couple, during a deafening battle, where they seem to be using their bedroom voices to clearly communicate at distance.
Still, this is cinematic entertainment not a history documentary, so we can shelve all those pedant nit-pickings for another day and allow the film’s powerful currents to take us on a wild ride.