– Tōgō Heihachirō(1848-1943), Admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy
One particular behavior of mine during the screening of South Korean film “Roaring Currents” can tell you a lot about my ambivalent reaction toward this movie. Around 40 minutes after it started, I checked the time because I felt bored by its many problems. Around the time when its second act began, I checked the time again to see that there was still an hour to pass. When its climax was almost over, I checked the time for the third time, and I was rather surprised to see that the time went faster than expected during this part.
As a period drama film about one of the most remarkable naval battles during the Japanese Invasion of Korea, a.k.a the Imjin War(1592-1598), the movie did not particularly enlighten me much on that famous battle about which I heard many times during my history classes, but it delivers its climax as promised, serving us with a long but spectacular naval battle sequence worthy of ticket price. This sequence is well-made indeed and the cast and filmmakers behind the movie deserve praises for their efforts, but I also noticed its deficiency in storytelling and characterization, and I could not help but think that it could have prepared itself better before delivering its rousing climax.
It is 1597, and the second invasion of the Japanese Army begins with the devastating news for the Joseon Dynasty of Korea. Like it was at the beginning of the first invasion in 1592, the country faces another serious threat as the Japanese forces are ready to occupy most of the country again, and the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Chilchonryang, in which the whole Korean naval fleet was nearly destroyed as a consequence, makes the situation all the more hopeless. It seems that there is almost no chance to stop the Japanese navy, and that means Japan can have a far more chance to win the war than ever.
When Yi Sun-sin(Choi Min-sik), a legendary Korean admiral who made a dramatic turning point for his country through his four campaigns in 1592 but was unfairly mistreated by his king and others despite the long, uninterrupted line of victories he achieved during this war, is back in his commander position, he clearly sees an undeniable disadvantage in the grave situation of him and his men. With a little time available to him, he has tried hard to assemble his army and ships for the upcoming battle with the Japanese navy, but all he can get are a small band of army and the 12 warships which survived from the Battle of Chilchonryang, and there is even not much support from his king, who orders to him to retreat and then join the ground forces instead.
But Admiral Yi is determined to stop the Japanese forces by any means necessary(he responded to King Seonjo in his famous letter: “I still have twelve warships under my command and I am still alive.”), and the first half of the movie focuses on how he and others under his command prepare for the battle to come. He gets his warships repaired while sending out a scout for reconnaissance mission. He applies strict martial rules for tightening his generals and soldiers and reminding them that they have no choice but to fight along with him(His motto: “Those willing to die will live, and those willing to live will die.”). Above all, he spots an ideal location for the battle; Myeongnyang Strait is a rough, precarious strait with wild tides and whirlpools, but this place can be a huge advantage for his small naval army – if his highly risky strategy works.
Meanwhile, we also see what is going on the other side. Although they are alarmed to learn that their arch-nemesis is now back in action, most of the Japanese admirals are confident that they will finally defeat Admiral Yi in this time, and Kurushima Michifusa(Ryoo Seung-ryong) is particularly eager for that due to his personal matter with Admiral Yi. Right from his first pompously sullen appearance, the movie pulls out all the stops to show this aggressive general as a formidable badass dude, and some of Japanese generals are understandably not that pleased to be with him, like some of Korean generals are not so happy with Admiral Yi.
I and most of other Korean audiences knew well the outcome of the Battle of Myeongnyang because it has been told and depicted many times through books, documentaries, and TV dramas for years, but the movie skillfully handles its long battle sequence from the beginning to the end without becoming dragged and tedious, and some of its high points are good enough to grip the audiences’ attention. While I must point out that there several fictional elements here and there for generating more tension and excitement, its big overall picture of the overwhelming circumstance Admiral Yi had to face is not changed much. At one certain point, only one warship is available to him, and he and his ship advance alone to the approaching Japanese fleet of more than 100 ships(believe or not, that really happened according to the history records).
But the movie does not impress me enough in case of story and characters. Choi Min-sik seems to be limited by his character’s larger-than-life image, and his performance mainly consists of looking serious or concerned or commanding on the screen. This is not a bad performance because that is exactly required to him, but, as a seasoned moviegoer, I have seen many, many military leader characters packed with loyalty, dignity, and authorities in other movies before, and Choi looks rather less distinctive compared to his other memorable performances.
On the opposite, Ryoo Seung-ryong, who incidentally played a steely Chinese general in the director/writer Kim Han-min’s another period drama action movie “War of the Arrows”(2011), is more wasted while just looking grim and brooding during most of his scenes, and many of the other actors in the movie are stuck in the flat, rudimentary supporting roles. Some of the key supporting characters are introduced with subtitles to show their names and positions, but I must confess that I did not distinguish one from another well, so it is confusing to watch at times as the movie shuffles between several groups in the battle during its climax sequence. I have no idea on how a dramatic last-minute rescue job during that sequence can be possible, and I think the last scene in the movie is an unnecessary footnote which only exists for finishing the movie with a bang before the end credits.
The best performance in the movie is probably from Myeongnyang strait. Though it is apparently depicted with CGI like many warships in the movie, the shots of its wild tides and the ominous roaring sound generated from them certainly make a big impression before and during the battle, and there is a creepy scene in which Admiral Yi is disturbed by its roaring sounds during his sleep and then dreams of the mournful ghosts of his men who died in the Battle of Chilchonryang.
I have a little too much reservation for recommending this film to you, but, in spite of the problems including its unfocused narrative and clumsy handling of numerous characters during its first half, it did its jobs as a war movie, and you may get some basic knowledge about its historical hero if you are not very familiar with a man who did so much even while cornered by his own country as well his enemy. In his book “The Influence of the Sea on The Political History of Japan” Historian George Alexander Ballard(1862-1948), an admiral of the British Royal Navy, wrote, “It is always difficult for Englishmen to admit that [Horatio] Nelson ever had an equal in his profession, but if any man is entitled to be so regarded, it should be this great naval commander of Asiatic race who never knew defeat and died in the presence of the enemy.” Not many admirals can receive such a high praise like that, you know.