Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Admiral: Roaring Currents

Alternate Title:  Zerg Rush!

One sentence synopsis:  Admiral Yi Sun-Sin leads a hopelessly outnumbered fleet in a desperate battle against a massive Japanese armada. 

Things Havoc liked: In 1592, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Shogun of Japan, launched a massive invasion of the Korean Kingdom of Josoen, intent on conquering the peninsula, and using it as a base with which to invade and conquer Ming China. For seven years, this war raged on and off, as Japanese forces sought to subjugate Korea, and the Koreans, with their Chinese allies, sought to drive them back. Locally called the Seven-Years-War (a name which would be used for a different conflict in the West), this war remains almost completely unknown in Europe and the United States, but not in Korea, where it is justly regarded as one of the finest hours of the Korean nation. And front and center in the midst of this epic conflict is one of the towering figures in the annals of naval warfare, the legendary Admiral Yi Sun-Sin, a man who, despite a lowly background and no formal training in warfare or sailing, fought twenty-three major naval battles without once suffering defeat, almost single-handedly turning the tide of the war against Japan, and becoming in the process, along with Horatio Nelson himself, one of the greatest Admirals in all of history. It was therefore probably inevitable that a Korean film studio, in this case the Korean media giant CJ Entertainment, would seek to make a blockbuster film about Admiral Yi, choosing for a subject, as was also probably inevitable, his most famous and awe-inspiring victory, the 1597 Battle of Myeongnyang, in which Yi, with thirteen battle-worthy ships, stood against a fleet of a hundred and thirty three Japanese warships, and defeated them.

This is history, guys. Spoilers are gonna happen.

The highest-grossing film in Korean history, the Admiral is clearly a product of a culture simultaneously nothing like Hollywood, and yet exposed nonetheless to a century of Hollywood's works. It is a big, sweeping epic, in the vein of recent Chinese films such as Red Cliffs or more standard (to us westerners) Hollywood fare like Kingdom of Heaven or The Last Samurai. Historical epics are a particularly favorite genre of mine, and this is a good one, bright and colorful, with a cast of dozens and swarms of extras and warships filmed with lush camerawork and painstaking detail. East Asia in the sixteenth century was a flamboyant place, and this film captures every loving detail of it all, from military uniforms that approach superhero costumes in their levels of complexity and symbolism, to banners, temples, statuary and architecture, reveling in a time when even the design of warships and cannons was rife with artistic touches. Entire pagodas tower above lumbering flagships, rifle barrels and sword blades bear engraved calligraphy and religious iconography, and the styles of armor seem to grow more extravagant by the hour, including embossed masks, plumed helmets, woven inscriptions, and bright streamers. How much of all this is actually true to life, I don't know. My guess is most of it. But even if not, the film thereby earns a richness that ensures there's never a moment when we're not staring at something beautiful, even as people die by the tens of thousands.

And oh boy do they die. Battle sequences in this film are where director Kim Han-Min, whose previous credits include other historical war epics, shows off his Hollywood influences, for they are as frenetic, chaotic, and violent as anything from Ridley Scott or Oliver Stone. Warships thunder with broadsides of cannons (yes, cannons, Korea was arguably the most advanced cannon-using power in the world in 1597), volleys of musketfire, and clashes of sword, polearm, and more outlandish weapons. Ships smash through one another with bone-shattering impact, as masses of soldiers and marines engage in bitter combat until the blood runs freely through the gunwales. And yet unlike some action films that go so far beyond the point of reason that the military-connoisseur in me begins choking on my own tongue, this film manages to push riiiiiiight up to the limit of what's plausible without pushing past it. Epic battles are sanguinary affairs for all sides, and do not consist of the virile armies of right and good slaughtering wave after wave of incompetent foes without taking a scratch (yes, 300 did that, but 300 was a different movie). Instead the battle comes visibly down to tactics, strategy, misdirection, and a whole heap of backs-to-the-wall last-stand bravery on the part of our heroes, as they face down legions of Samurai warriors, all of whom are allowed to be just as lethal as we've all come to expect Samurai to be.

But what of the acting and plot, the things with which I usually start my reviews? The difficulty with foreign films, even for those unafraid of subtitles, is that cultural conventions in Korea (or wherever) are completely alien to those in the US, which can render it difficult to follow complex narratives, as things that a Korean audience would pick up on automatically are opaque, or even completely invisible to us. Yet this film manages well, telling a straightforward military story of an Admiral on his last legs with a fleet falling to pieces, standing against an overwhelming force and trying to best it by any means necessary. The Admiral himself, played by Oldboy's Choi Min-Suk, is very well-characterized, a driven, calculating man, ruthless when he needs to be, yet self-sacrificing when the occasion demands it, who recognizes the exact position he is in with a faultless eye, and constructs a plan to give himself the finest possible chance of emerging victorious. He is not portrayed as some divinely-inspired super-human genius of faultless calculation, nor a Xanatos-style ultra-schemer, whose every failure turns out to be actually all according to plan. Instead the film portrays him as a man who is simply very, very good at what he does, and utterly committed to doing just that, come what may. Surrounded by lieutenants of greater or lesser ability and loyalty, and sailors and soldiers who vary from the brave to the cowardly, he sets out to do battle in a fight he knows he has done everything to prepare for, and leaves the outcome to the designs of fate. There's more than one director of Hollywood epics who could stand to take a lesson here.

Things Havoc disliked: At the risk of sounding racist, watching a film starring an ensemble cast of hundreds of Korean actors I've never seen before playing characters whose names I do not know can get... unavoidably confusing. Several times I got lost as to just who was doing what and what relationship a given character had to whom. This is not helped by several characters who would appear to be major ones suddenly disappearing from the film for the duration while others come to prominence. When one follows history, this is the sort of thing that can happen, but it did leave me wishing that Kim had tightened things a bit around the main story.

Indeed, The Admiral is not a long film (a hair over two hours), but it definitely feels like one. The battle sequences are relentless, with lengthy crowd shots of killing and beginning-middle-end structures that give us hope of a false dawn before the Japanese send in the next wave of forces. Three separate times, I thought admiral Yi had finally won the battle, only to discover that everything that had so-far happened was merely a pre-battle skirmish and that the real meat of the fighting was about to start. This unfortunately robs the film of some of its epic feel, as it gets a bit ridiculous when you have five consecutive "shocking turning points that suddenly enable our heroes to win" within forty-five minutes. I grant that the real battle of Myeongnyang was such an insane upset victory that it may well have involved this sort of thing, but we're here to watch a movie, and even if you wanted to keep all of the various hinge points in the battle, structuring the film such that not every one of them is treated like the climax to Return of the King might be a good idea.

There's also the issue of Melodrama, something that I've noticed happens with fair regularity in Korean film and television. There are moments in the film when the director lets the reins slip a bit, and allows characters to vent full reign of their most King Lear-like emotions. These can be fun, but some of them go so far over the top that we start to question whether they make any sense at all. A moment midway through the film when Admiral Yi's turtle ship unexpectedly catches fire and burns to the waterline involves him running screaming into the night in a nightgown, tearing his hair and crying to all and sundry that he will crush the Japanese with the very ship being reduced to ashes in front of his face. That the ship is a loss and the admiral distraught at its destruction, I understand, but the reaction is so over the top one might expect that his entire family was aboard, plunging wild-eyed into the water and being held back by his loyal subordinates from hurling himself into the flames. And yet the next morning he is sober and controlled again, prepared to revise his battle plan to account for the ship's loss, a change so stark that I suspected his performance the night before would eventually be revealed as a cunning act of theater designed to misdirect his enemies or somehow inspire his own men. There are a handful of such scenes, where the tight logic and control of the film suddenly deserts it in favor of Gone-With-the-Wind melodrama, each time dragging me back out of the film and into reality. Perhaps Korean audiences have a better tolerance for such things.

Final thoughts:  The Admiral is a wonderful film, not an epochal triumph along the lines of Marvel's outings, but a great movie in its own way, the biggest ever in Korean history, and justly so. Sweeping, epic, and beautiful, it sheds light on a period even I knew almost nothing about, highlighting one of the greatest captains in history in the way he deserves to be highlighted. A foreign film in limited release stateside is obviously only going to be available to a select audience, but insofar as it is on offer, I would unhesitatingly recommend it to war, history, and foreign cinema buffs alike.

After all, with the September slump upon us, your alternatives are not encouraging...

Final Score:  7/10

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