Saturday, August 9, 2014

Movie Review: 명량, or Roaring Currents

I rarely go to the movies, even though it's a pleasanter experience in Seoul than it often was back home--the times I've been, people don't chatter, phones don't ring, kids don't run amok ...

Anyway, I went to see the title above at the CGV in IFC with TSAM, and quite enjoyed it (the screening had English subs). It concerns of the great naval battles of all time, in which Korean Admiral Yi Sun-shin with 12 ships faces off against the Japanese fleet of some 130 battleships plus support vessels at Myeongryang in the summer of 1597, a part of the Imjin War during which a newly unified Japan tries to subjugate Joseon.

 photo admiral_zps4449f0dc.jpgEarlier, Admiral Yi had fallen into disfavor in the factionalized court of weak-willed King Seonjo, and he was imprisoned, tortured and then reduced in rank to a foot-soldier. Meanwhile, Won Gyun, who took over command of the navy, led a disastrous series of campaigns against the Japanese, reducing Yi's carefully-grown fleet of 150+ ships to a mere twelve. When Yi is again elevated to leadership, and plans to fight a pitched battle against the advancing fleet, Won has the temerity to bitch and complain that he can't possibly expect to succeed with only 12 ships.

This is where the movie picks up the tale, in the briefing during which Won and his supporter Baek Seol question Yi's wisdom. He pauses for a moment and says, "This briefing is over."

The overall narrative thread of the movie is accurate, but I can't speak about many of the details--The Stumbler's friend Mija said it was all pretty true. Well, the Japanese are stereotypically evil, Yi stereotypically wise, stiocal and iron-willed, the soldiers by turns petulant, cowardly and courageous as the plot demands. The movie spends a lot of dialogue on the nature of courage, and/or how to bend fear to do your will, the value of sacrifice.

Yi's strategy is brilliant, depending almost entirely on the strangely veering and backing currents in the strait where he chose to set the battle. The movie is about 2 hrs, 10 min long, about 50% build-up and 50% battle.

The battle scenes are quite well-done, the right mix of close-up action, gore, strategic pans, etc. Even though you know the outcome, there's edge-of-the-seat suspense, well-earned cheers from the audience, and satisfying In fact, every aspect was quite good, from the music to the philosophy of war stuff, to the acting. Here's a Joongang Daily interview with the actor who played Admiral Yi.

 The movie has been out just about a week, and has smashed every Korean box office record for any release, foreign or domestic--10% of the country's population has already seen it. Partly, of course, that's because of the whole nationalism thing: in addition to being indisputably one of the world's greatest military strategists, Yi Sun-shin is also Korea's number one or two national hero. But whatever your nationality, it's a ripping good war flick. Catch it. In America, it will be released later this summer as "The Admiral".

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