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Admiral: Roaring Currents, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Calm seas, then a whirlpool of historical military action."
4 stars

Let's be honest about "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" ("Myeongryang - Huiori Bada" in the original Korean, and apparently sometimes only either half of the English title is used): Roughly 95% of why people buy a ticket is for the great big battle sequence at the end, and the intrigues that set it up and put human faces on the combatants really just need to be not-awful. That's about where it lands - good enough for the first hour or so, but coming through with what it promised.

The battle of Myeongryang took place on 26 October 1597, with Admiral Yi Sun-shin (Choi Min-sik) standing between the capital of Joseon and an invading Japanese Navy commanded by General Wakizaka (Cho Jin-woong) and augmented by "Pirate King" Kurushima (Ryu Seung-ryong). It is far from a fair fight - Yi is ailing since being arrested and tortured under suspicion of being a Japanese double agent before being reinstated after a devastating defeat, and the Korean Navy is so desperately outnumbered - roughly 300 to 12 - that he's been ordered to have his men reinforce the army. He does not intend to die on dry land, though, and a look at a nearby whirlpool gives him an idea.

The first half of Roaring Currents isn't actually filler, and I suspect that Korean history buffs will enjoy it. It does contain a certain amount of set-up for what comes later, with characters introduced and a look at what motivates everyone beyond trying to win the war. It's not bad at all, but it doesn't exactly feel illuminating: Folks buying a ticket for this movie probably know the basics of what's going to happen, and while there are some exciting moments to it, there are few moments either during the run-up or the battle where the viewer stops and thinks that this moment had or would have a major effect on the ultimate outcome.

That shouldn't understate the work done by an enjoyable cast both during this part and the final battle. Choi Min-sik plays Admiral Yi, a little bit difficult to recognize behind some old-age makeup and a long grey beard, but using them to give the character some gravitas. He's especially good when paired with Kwon Yool as Yi's son Hoe; while many conversations in the movie are basically laying the characters' history out fairly plainly, there's a sense of close history between them that doesn't need everything spelled out. A few of the other members of Yi's crew stand out, notably Jin Goo as the scout meeting up with a mole played by Ryohei Otani (I don't think it's ever established whether he's spy or traitor; someone in the film actually asks). The Japanese villains are pretty well-defined - Ryu Seung-ryong's outlaw has an edge that Cho Jin-woong's Wakizawa doesn't, and No Min-woo makes a strong impression as a ninja/sniper in Kurushima's crew.

Eventually it gets to the battle, and that is pretty terrific. Director Kim Han-min doesn't overburden the audience with a great deal of naval terminology beforehand, but does make sure that the audience can see how currents and whirlpools are going to have a big effect on navigation before setting up the confrontation. Kim moves the camera around the strait where things take place, but gives us a clear idea of how things are set up. More than that, he sets up how the fight tells an emotional story even more than it is an exercise in strict tactics, perhaps more than is completely credible, but it certainly makes for a satisfying viewing experience.

Just as satisfying, though, is watching ships blast the crap out of each other. Kim and co-writer Jun Chul-hong serve up plenty of that, with cannon volleys, explosive arrows, gunfire and shrapnel that leaves even the ships that don't sink tellingly scarred throughout the rest of the sequence. There will be points where boarders have to be repelled in close-quarters combat (as this really wouldn't be satisfying unless Yi and Kurushima got to stand face to face and draw swords), and they are a sort of action that doesn't show up on screen often enough these days, albeit with more decapitations than the old swashbucklers featured. What really makes this battle stand out, though, is how much smashing and bashing is going on with the ships. The water is often kind of a non-factor in other movies of this type - it may be choppy to add visual interest or have reefs and shorelines where ships can run aground - but here the action is built around it throwing ships around, knocking enemy boats against each other or having Yi take advantage of how he is pulled in some direction. Heck, even when that's not the case, apparently Joseon-era naval warfare made regular use of something called "turtle ships", highly-armored vessels that plow through the water like tanks, and Yi's strategy reflects that even when one is not at his disposal. Kim and his team make a sea battle feel like a brawl where one great fighter faces a throng of enemies, and that's a new one for me.

Kim has also made a highly-polished movie, with eight ships built for the production and great attention paid to detail in every respect; even with its flaws, it's no wonder that South Korea is lining up to see "Roaring Currents" in record numbers. It's a big-screen movie, and I'm glad the distributor has brought it abroad to the U.S. just a couple weeks after its Korean opening. It may take a while to get to the action, but that alone is worth the price of admission.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=27812&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/17/14 14:34:53
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USA
  15-Aug-2014

UK
  N/A

Australia
  15-Aug-2014


Directed by
  Han-min Kim

Written by
  Chul-hong Jun
  Han-min Kim

Cast
  Min-sik Choi
  Seung-Ryong Ryoo
  Jin-woong Cho
  Goo Jin
  Ryohei Otani



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