Revolving around the Battle of Myeongryang, this battle at sea is regarded as one of the most significant battles in Admiral Yi Sun Shin’s (Choi Min Shik) war career. Leading up to the infamous battle, Joseon faced a number of setbacks in the war against the Japanese which prompted King Seonjo to abolish the navy and reallocate the men to ground troops. Despite that, Yi Sun Sin leads 12 ships, with his own ship at the forefront, into battle against a Japanese fleet of 330 vessels.
Setting box office records on its opening day, this epic features an important and beloved historical figure in Korean history. While the film can be viewed as slanted towards Korean patriotism, this cinematic piece delves deeper into the war psyche, especially the psyche of the Admiral, himself.
The films starts off with a title sequence explaining the war between Joseon and Japan and then the first act sets up the chain of events leading up to this epic battle. The information was so dense that I confess that while I remember the gist of the storyline, I don’t think I quite captured the entire story. Typical of any Joseon sageuk tale, there are a lot of characters to remember in order to understand their motives. I often found myself struggle to recollect some of the major players from scene to scene because the movie moves at such a quick pace.
Having said that, I love the pacing of the battle sequence as it conveys both Yi Sun Shin’s strategic advantage combined with the obvious out pour of emotions you expect from a war film. I was impressed with how well the movie does at explaining the technical aspects of the tide conditions to the ships involved in the battle to heighten the intensity of the battle scene. Add emotional elements like the scene in which the civilians are frantically trying to flag the other ships from land to the isolation of being the only ship that’s fends off a legion, they help the audience experience the same fear and anxiety felt by the character in time with the sequence of events that are unfolding on screen.
The greatest thing about Choi Min Shik’s performance is not during the actual battle sequences. Rather, it’s more the quiet scenes leading up to battle from trying to muster up the lack of courage felt by his men while trying to suppress his own apprehensions. There’s a nice balance between playing up the hero status of the Yi Sun Shin and yet, depicting his humanity during private moments with his son, Yi Hwoe (Kwon Yul).
Kim Tae Sung – 두려움을 용기로 (From Fear to Courage)
With this hero worship, one begs the question about the accuracy of the film. Obviously, it’s impossible to be 100% accurate in the retelling but I think each individual must make up their own mind about how that impacts their impression of the film. However, I will point out two controversies. Bae Seol’s (Kim Won Hae) ancestors have apparently filed a lawsuit for defamation because of his depiction in the film.
Largely cynical about Joseon’s chances in the upcoming battle, he is seen deserting the navy after playing an integral part in destroying Yi Sun Shin’s almost fully constructed warships, also known as the turtle ship. He’s taken out by Ahn Wi (Lee Seung Jun) but I feel that the truth isn’t so farfetched that’s it completely misrepresents the real Bae Seol. The records are so vague other than he ran away and was executed that I don’t blame the film for filling in a few blanks to portray the general sentiments towards Yi Sun Shin’s leadership.
There’s also the matter of the Japanese which is always a subject of contention when it comes to many Korean battles. Other than two recognizable Japanese actors, the Japanese characters are largely played by a Korean cast like Ryu Seung Ryong and Jo Jin Woong.
Despite that, it’s fascinating to watch Ryu Seung Ryong’s depiction of Kurushima Michifusa go up against the Yi Sun Shin. There’s a great operatic tragedy depicted in Ryu Seung Ryong’s performance but the real gem is the differences in how these two figures lead their army. Where Kurushima is bold and unflinching, Yi Sun Shin struggles with appearing strong and unforgiving in front of his men. Where Yi Sun Shin is a logical strategist, Kurushima relies on his strength in number tactics to send ship after ship into the swirling tides of Myeongryang.
The most surprising thing about this movie is that it’s fairly short, running a little over two hours. I think the pacing of the film would do far better with a slower first act that gives the film time to explain all of the necessary events and give the audience time to get to know the countless characters. Nevertheless, the battle sequence is truly a cinematic masterpiece for a war film aided by such great performances by the cast.