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20 Aug 2014

Review: The Admiral: Roaring Currents – Last Saturday, we went out to see the latest Korean blockbuster, Myeongnyang (titled The Admiral: Roaring Currents in English, in keeping with the tradition of giving Korean films silly English titles). I haven’t been able to write about it until now because this week seems to be the week that everyone is scheduling their conferences, so I’ve been a bit busy.

“The battle itself hit the right dramatic notes and was very entertaining to watch.”

I will start with my conclusion: I enjoyed it, but there were elements that I found somewhat distracting. That is, I wasn’t able to fully immerse myself in the experience because certain things happened that challenged my suspension of disbelief. Overall, though, it was a good film and enjoyable, although I wouldn’t call it the best Korean film I’ve ever seen, not by a long shot. I only say that because apparently the film has broken all existing box office records in Korea (I don’t remember exact figures, but I remember seeing on the news that it broke the record previously held by Avatar).

Let me start by saying that, although I enjoy history, I am not a historian, so I am not going to attempt to pick truth from fiction in this depiction of the naval battle at Myeongnyang (you can look it up on Wikipedia for background information). From what I have gathered, the general details are more or less faithful to reality, with a few important exceptions. For example, the film doesn’t really make it clear that, of the over three hundred Japanese ships that Yi Sunsin faced with his twelve (or thirteen) ships, only 133 were actually warships. This doesn’t change the fact that what Yi accomplished was a tremendous tactical feat, of course—he was still outnumbered ten to one. In fact, I think the film does Yi a disservice by implying that he was outnumbered by nearly thirty to one instead, as if what he achieved wasn’t dramatic enough in and of itself. Anyway, it would be easy to get bogged down in historical arguments, and I would be arguing from a position of incomplete knowledge, so I’ll try to avoid that.

From the outset it is apparent that this film is aimed squarely at a Korean audience. At first glance that is not too surprising, but in the age of the Korean wave, when Korean film and other cultural products are enjoying varying measures of popularity overseas, I found it a little odd that the filmmakers didn’t seem too give much thought to eventually marketing this to foreign audiences. The primary problem in terms of accessibility for foreign audiences, as far as I am concerned, is that the film follows certain conventions of television historical dramas here: namely, a cast of characters so large it would make Shakespeare weep is thrown at the audience, and captions that appear below these characters when they first appear on screen identify them and help audience members keep everything straight. I’m used to this, as Korean historical dramas are among my favorite Korean television programs, but even I found it a little difficult to keep track of who was who at times. It’s all well and good to identify the characters when they first appear on the screen, but later on I found myself thinking on a few occasions, “Wait, who was this guy again?”

Korean audience members, of course, will be familiar with this convention, but I have my doubts about foreign audience members being able to handle it. In fact, some of HJ’s students went to see the film, and the one thing they all said was that they quickly lost track of the characters and had no idea who was who aside from the main protagonists and antagonists. I suspect that Korean wave surfers familiar with Korean historical dramas might be able to deal with the flood of characters, but on a mainstream level I can picture entire cinemas full of confused audiences.

This is only a problem in the first half of the film, in the build-up to the battle. I’ve heard people complain that this first half dragged, but I didn’t mind it. Historically, Yi Sunsin was a brilliant military mind, but he was plagued by political intrigue in the capital and dissent in his ranks. I thought the build-up depicted this rather well; he not only had to worry about a massive Japanese fleet threatening the Korean capital, he also had to overcome obstacles put in his path by people who were ostensibly on his side. If you’re just going for the action, the first half of the film might put you to sleep... but if all you’re looking for is action, why aren’t you watching a Michael Bay film?

The second half of the film is the battle itself, and it is quite a sight to behold. I have to believe that the filmmakers relied at least partly on computer graphics, green screen, and the like, but it all looks very realistic and believable; not once did I find myself thinking, “That looks fake.” The battle itself hit the right dramatic notes and was very entertaining to watch. If I had to make one criticism in terms of style, it would be that at times the film felt a little too dramatic. That is, it became so overblown and dramatic that I was made aware of the artifice. At one point I found myself thinking that the film was Korea’s answer to 300, not just thematically but also stylistically. If that was the intent, though, the filmmakers didn’t go far enough. In 300, you had a heavily stylized film that did not get around objections to believability so much as it simply steamrolled over them and said, “Yeah, but who cares? Look at this!” In Myeongnyang, I felt that they wanted to create a more or less realistic depiction of the battle, but they seemingly couldn’t help going overboard at times, whether in the excessive use of slow motion shots or the bombastic, overblown music (the two biggest offenders, in my opinion). So, yes, I did enjoy the battle sequences, and I thought they were very well done, but I would be lying if I said that the stylistic choices didn’t negatively effect my enjoyment.

Like many guys, I’ve always been fascinated by military hardware. So I noticed that the Korean ships were conspicuously larger than the Japanese ships. Apparently this was historically accurate: from what I’ve read the Korean ships were larger and sturdier than the Japanese ships, but for this they traded speed and maneuverability. This is the key to Admiral Yi’s brilliance: by luring the Japanese into a narrow strait with strong currents, he eliminated their only advantages (i.e., speed and maneuverability) and was able to dominate them. I was also intrigued by the differences in weapons used by the opposing side. For example, I noticed that only the Korean ships fired cannons, and I wondered why the Japanese didn’t reply in kind (although one scene did show a few Japanese soldiers attempting to fire a hand cannon). Further reading of Korean sources after the film revealed that the Japanese possessed ship guns but were not as skilled at using them. What they did have were tanegashima, a type of arquebus, and the film showed the Japanese troops using these to great effect. So rather than having two similar forces arrayed against each other, each navy had unique weapons and tactics that made the battle a lot more interesting to watch.

However, I’m afraid I’m going to have to nitpick, and my nitpick is with the tanegashima. The first thing we need to understand about these weapons is that, like other arquebuses or muskets, they were smooth-bore guns. If you know anything about guns, you probably know that the invention of rifling both increased the range of firearms and made them considerably more accurate simply by spinning the bullet as it flew through the barrel. Prior to rifling, though, guns were extremely inaccurate and ineffective at long range. The tanegashima, for example, had an effective range of 80-100 meters (according to Wikipedia). They were most effective when fired en masse at close range.

The film does take this into account, and the first time we see Japanese sailors firing their tanegashima, they incline their barrels by around thirty degrees before firing in order to increase their range. Well, they might have been able to send the bullets (musketballs, really) farther by doing that, but they weren’t going to do much damage, especially when the Korean sailors were armored and hiding behind shields. To be fair to the film, this initial volley didn’t really seem to do much damage at all—but that only made me wonder why the Japanese bothered with it in the first place. My confusion was compounded by scenes where the Japanese are shown firing their weapons from much closer range to much greater effect. This felt a lot more realistic to me, but it again raised the question of why you would bother with the initial volley. I guess you might make the argument for psychological damage, but I don’t think they were too effective in that department, either.

That was not the worst sin when it came to the tanegashima, though. That was reserved for the lieutenant of the pirate captain who was played up as the big baddy. (Kurushima; incidentally, the English version of Wikipedia refers to him as a samurai and makes no mention of any wako heritage; only Korean sources call him a pirate, so make of that what you will.) At one point in the battle, the lieutenant climbs atop the superstructure of the flagship and adopt a prone firing position. The film takes great pains to show us that he is using tanegashima; one underling stands by with preloaded weapons to cut down on loading time, while another underling lights each weapon’s match (they are matchlock weapons) as the lieutenant prepares to fire. And yet, despite the fact that he is using the same smooth-bore, short-range firearm that all the other Japanese troops are using, he expertly takes out two Korean officers trying to raise a flag on Admiral Yi’s flagship, despite the fact that he is well over a hundred meters away. I can’t be the only person who sees how utterly ridiculous this is. The very concept of a sniper didn’t become possible until the advent of rifles—a single musketman would have been pointless, and no one would have even thought to use the weapon in this way. But the film depicts him as a modern sniper, skillfully picking out targets well beyond the technological capabilities of the weapon he is using. (Ironically, he is taken out by a single arrow that pierce his eye. But, to add insult to injury, despite having an arrow sticking halfway into his brain, he is able to get up, scream, flail about dramatically, and then fall off the superstructure and into the water—you know, instead of just being killed on the spot, which is probably what would have happened in reality.)

OK, I just had to get that out of my system. I think that if the film had tossed historical accuracy to the wind from the very start (like 300, which was of course based on a graphic novel rather than the actual historical battle), I wouldn’t have had much of a problem with this one bit. But I don’t think I would have enjoyed such a film as much, and I appreciate the great lengths the filmmakers seem to have gone to make the film as historically accurate as possible, at least militarily. Unfortunately, that just makes inconsistencies such as this one all the more glaring.

Nitpicks and stylistic differences aside, I stick by my original conclusion. The film didn’t change my life, but I definitely enjoyed it, and I would recommend it if you like war films. Don’t worry about all the different generals and other characters—you’ll figure out who the main players are soon enough.

Send me your thoughts.

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