The Admiral: Roaring Currents is screening at this year’s Korean Film Festival in Australia. See the KOFFIA website for more details!
For me, not being Korean, it is hard to get behind Korean nationalism. Period piece war movies like The Admiral have this nationalistic intent, meant to inspire pride whilst reminding us of the sacrifice made by those who’ve died in history — as an almost direct connection to our present selves. Being able to empathise with the characters plays a large part in being engrossed with a story if that connection does not exist naturally, and unfortunately The Admiral does not do that.
A failure of the film is the lack of characterisation in the film from any side. There was perhaps something missing in the version I saw, in which some text that was shown wasn’t translated in the subtitles, but even then my suspicion is that they were merely reminders to the audience of who these characters are, since they play such a small role even for supporting characters. The titular Admiral Yi Sun-shin (Choi Min-sik) is introduced to us as a man who was betrayed by his superiors and subsequently suffers chronically from that betrayal — but beyond that initial show of frailty, no sign of such illness appears in his portrayal. There is additional betrayal in the Admiral’s camp as he strategises against the Japanese, as well as maintains morale when up against such crushing odds. Similarly there are machinations amongst the Japanese themselves setting up certain motivations, but our primary villain Wakizaka (JO Jin-woong) is presented with a personal revenge motivation that feels token and an excuse for him to act more recklessly than his colleagues. His heavy eye makeup distinguishes his villainy, akin to a twirly moustache, and emphasises the melodramatic feel, as if from a kabuki play.
All this, though, is merely exposition in the lead up to the final battle set-piece… and for the most part, the battle is exciting if a bit incredible. The boarding actions are appropriately brutal, though the artillery and archery seem unbelievable in the effective range of their employ. Similarly the ships themselves surge through the water at a speed that belies their existence as wide barges powered by oars. As such, the poetic license employed seems to be largely one of scale. In the lead up there is much exposition on how great a strategist Yi Sun-shin is, but little actual demonstration until the climactic final battle. There’s a certain respect for way the man takes advantage of his side’s morale as a means of getting inside the other side’s head, but it is a shame the Admiral’s previous successes only exist in exposition.
The rhythm of the final battle also fails to convey the significance of the loss of a number of boats in the Japanese navy due to the Admiral’s clever use of the terrain. Ships sink early — akin to henchman fighting Bruce Lee — only to be forgotten once the fight begins in earnest. Boarding sequences, where the back and forth of melee surges across the boats, is captured in traditional ways, though I did question the use of the occasional piece of rallying music as the camera panned across the battle. As the battle progresses, it’s harder to follow what the intention of certain moves are and the triumphal end to the battle makes no sense in light of what happened at the beginning of the film.
The story of a small navy being able to beat off a significantly larger force by taking advantage of local geography can be paralleled with the story in Zack Snyder’s 300. Whilst that film was essentially a comic book given motion upon celluloid, the verisimilitude of the portrayal in The Admiral leaves what license it does use to create tension or drama in a scene; however, it’s so over-the-top that it detracts from the film instead and and leaves you feeling more bewildered than inspired. With no connection to the characters, even the dramatic, heroic deaths in the film feel empty and we are left appreciating a strategic achievement, rather than a triumphant victory in spite of overwhelming odds.