The shattered warrior watches the battle. Japanese pirates and soldiers flood onto the ship and slaughter his comrades. “We’re all going to die,” he screams. He pulls a flaming stick from the wreckage of the ship and stuffs it into munitions stored above deck.
The blast rocks the ship and knocks the ship’s commander off his feet. The weary old warrior rises and observes the battlefield. Four enemy ships press against his own. The Japanese fighters crawl aboard, slitting the throats of his men with their blades.
But he isn’t just any commander. He is the legendary admiral Yi Sun-sin and he has an idea. He wades through the battle and grabs one of his officers. “Gather all cannons to the port oar of the ship,” he commands. “Can you do it?”
“But we could all die,” the officer says in shock.
“Just get it done,” Yi barks at the officer.
The crew grab the cannons and roll them below. Oarsmen and soldiers push the half-dozen guns to the side of the ship and stick them out the port side oar windows. More Japanese soldiers board above. More Joseon warriors die.
The crew braces itself before the cannons blast away. The force of the guns tears through two of the Japanese ships on the port side. The admiral’s ship slams against the other two vessels swarming him, knocking them loose.
The smoke clears and Yi rises. His gambit destroyed two enemy ships. The Japanese fighters stare stunned as their vessels sink. The admiral’s men rally and drive their foes into the water.
The year is 1597 and the story is that of the legendary Battle of Myeongnyang. This is The Admiral: Roaring Currents.
The Admiral is a 2014 South Korean film from director Kim Han-min. It tells the story of a legendary naval battle between Korea and Japan during the late 16th century. The story is like 300 set at sea — a historical battle whose history is more myth than reality, and about a small scrappy force of dedicated warriors fending off the superior force of an invading empire.
In 300, Spartan king Leonidas and 300 of his fiercest warriors defended a narrow pass at Thermopylae from a Persian invasion. In The Admiral, the famed naval commander Yi Sun-sin — played by Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi — uses just 13 ships to defend the strait of Myeongnyang from 133 Japanese warships.
Or so the legends say.
In the late 16th century, Japan — under the brutal Daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi — twice attempted to invade Joseon, now called Korea. The Admiral takes place at the end of the second conquest. After a long and brutal naval campaign, Japan has reduced the Joseon fleet to just 13 ships.
The king of Joseon writes to his star admiral, Yi, and demands he disband the navy and merge his forces into the army to fight off Japan’s ground invasion. Yi declines. “To forfeit the sea is to forfeit Joseon,” he says in the film.
The first half of The Admiral deals with Yi preparing for the fight. He must gather supplies and intelligence, learn the ebbs and flows of the Myeongnyang Strait and convince his men that victory against the Japanese is possible.
The second half is pure action and it’s wonderful.
Normally, I’m not a fan of movies about naval warfare. The salty spray of the sea and films such as Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World leave me cold. My father served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and his stories left me with the impression that the ocean is a cruel and terrible place.
Despite my aversion to the water, I loved The Admiral. The action, the intrigue, the history, the sets and costumes all blend together into an engaging and wonderful film. Watching The Admiral feels like watching a Samurai movie at sea. It’s like Kurosawa at high resolution with beautiful color.
The elaborate and ornate costumes of the Japanese leaders in particular struck me as beautiful. Each of these warriors’ costumes tells a story all to itself. Their headpieces and battle flags tell the stories of their campaigns.
The camera pulls back wide so the audience doesn’t miss a beat of its beautifully choreographed battles. There’s no close-in shaky cam action that audiences suffer through in many Western action flicks.
The Admiral is also violent. It’s a visceral kind of blood and guts that would feel at home in a Tarantino film. Despite some of its overwrought elements and extreme violence, The Admiral never crosses the line and becomes a cartoon.
The Admiral is the most successful South Korean film of all time. It drove people to the theater, grossed millions of dollars and won dozens of awards. It’s easy to see why. It’s a slickly produced piece of ultra violence that plays to nationalism.
We make those kinds of movies all the time in America and they’re often damn entertaining. It’s fun to watch another culture do something similar, and easier to spot the places where nationalism colors the historical perspective.
The film depicts the enemy Japanese as either cruel or craven. The pirate king Kurushima in particular is a brutal and stoic nightmare. The dread warriors sever the heads of Joseon soldiers, cut off their ears and noses and send them to Yi as a warning.
The depiction of the Japanese reminded me of American portrayal of the British in films about the revolutionary war. It reminded me of Mel Gibson’s The Patriot — all evil and no nuance.
Another aspect of The Admiral that shines is its depiction of morale and how it affects the battlefield. Admiral Yi’s lack of ships and supplies is a problem, but the fear eating away at the hearts of his men is worse.
Yi knows this, so he attempts to turn his men’s fear into courage. He knows how a few grand gestures can change the momentum of the battlefield just as surely as time can change the tides in the Myeongnyang Strait.
Yi manipulates both and proves himself the better commander over the aggressive Japanese fleet. His men don’t always obey his orders and often they’re terribly frightened. Many desert their posts, and one even sabotages Yi in hopes he’ll stop his mad campaign against Toyotomi’s army.
Morale is an important battlefield condition that isn’t often depicted in film, and it was fun and different to watch the warring motivations of soldiers play out in the movie.
The Admiral: Roaring Currents is streaming right now on Netflix.