Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Admiral: Roaring Currents

During the late 1500s, naval warfare was a tough business, almost entirely powered by galley oars. Like most forms of warfighting at the time, it usually boiled down to a numbers game. Yet, Admiral Yi Sun-shin will try to hold off 330 invading Japanese vessels with a mere twelve ships (if that), largely through his force of will. Of course, he also has home field advantage, including the treacherous strait the Japanese will try to navigate in Kim Han-min’s smash Korean box office hit The Admiral: Roaring Currents (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Admiral Yi has often defeated the noble-born Japanese General Wakizaka, but he was lucky to escape their last confrontation with his life. Still ailing from his torture and imprisonment, the freshly released and pardoned Admiral Yi assumes command of the Joseon fleet, all twelve ships. Frankly, none of the king’s generals believe he can do anything with his ragtag remnant except let the army absorb them. In contrast, Admiral Yi understands they must slow the Japanese advance or his unappreciative king will surely be lost.

Needless to say, not everyone sees things his way, forcing the Admiral to deal with insurrection at the senior officer level. However, the Japanese leadership is even more deeply divided. While Wakizaka is still nominally in charge, de facto command has been assumed by Kurushima, the ruthless former brigand. He has no interest in winning hearts and minds, but his contempt and overconfidence might be his undoing.

Yes, Roaring is a Joseon St. Crispin’s day on the Myeong-Nyang Sea. Evidently, director Han is waging one man war against Shogunate Japan, following up his action driven War of the Arrows with Yi’s heroic story. While Roaring is not as breakneck and adrenaline charged as Arrows, it features some massive cannonball-and-grappling hook spectacle, churned to butter on the Myeong-Nyang’s roiling waves. Seriously, this probably not the film for viewers prone to sea-sickness.

It is also jolly good fun to hear the Japanese generals cursing Yi, like Seinfeld hissing “Newman.” Appropriately, the legendary Admiral is played with haggard gravitas by Choi Min-sik, currently one of the world’s biggest movie stars, given his turns in Oldboy, Nameless Gangster, New World, and Luc Besson’s Lucy. Although his Yi is considerably more reserved than his celebrated gangster performances, he fully brings out the Admiral’s tragically heroic dimensions.

Arguably, Choi’s most important co-stars are the warships and the angry sea, much as it was in The Perfect Storm. However, Ryu Seong-ryong’s Kurushima still makes a highly hissable villain, even if he does not quite generate the same malevolent charisma he brought to bear as Qing the Japanese man-hunter in Arrows. Although her screen time is brief, Juvenile Offender’s Lee Jung-hyun also adds a memorable note of pathos as the traumatized Lady Jung.

There is no question Han puts a lot of movie up on the screen with The Admiral. It is the sort of military epic Mel Gibson used to make before his implosion, which is meant as a compliment. Recommended for fans of patriotic Korean cinema and big picture historicals, The Admiral: Roaring Currents opens this Friday (8/15) in New York at the AMC Empire and the AMC Bay Terrace in Flushing.