The year is 1597. The Joseon Dynasty has been under Japanese attack for six years. As the nation faces the possibility of loss as the Japanese military fearlessly pushes toward the capital, Admiral Yi Sun-Shin (Min-sik Choi) is reappointed as the Chief of Naval Operations and assembles a group of soldiers to defend the nation against attack. Japanese Chief Commander Kurushima (Seung-ryong Ryu), notorious for his cruel personality and clever strategies, responds by destroying Joseon's one last hope, the Turtle Ship. With just twelve battleships and an army of doubtful soldiers, Admiral Yi and his soldiers face 330 Japanese battleships in The Battle of Myeong-Nyang.
"It is said that a commander's loyalty must lie with the king, and the king must follow his subjects."
Historic battles or settings often provide the perfect backdrop to build a big budget, mega scale block buster movie around. The Roman Colosseum in Ridley Scott's 'Gladiator,' the battle of Iwo Jima for Clint Eastwood's 'Letters From Iwo Jima' just to name a couple. Prior to this review I hadn't ever heard of Korean Admiral YI Sun-shin or his numerous naval victories against a massive Japanese in the late 1590s so going into 'The Admiral: Roaring Currents I didn't have any historic frame of reference for accuracy or preconceptions about what the movie would be. What it turned out to be is one of the best historic action dramas I've ever seen.
Admiral YI Sun-shin (Choi Min-sik) takes command of Korea's navy without having any kind of formal naval training. With the odds against him, he experiences victory after victory using sound battle tactics and his redesigned, heavily armored Geobukseon or Turtle Ships to break the Japanese lines, YI Sun-shin quickly earns the respect of his men as well as the jealousy of other generals and commanders. Falsely accused as a Japanese spy, YI Sun-shin is imprisoned, beaten, tortured, starved and demoted to the rank of common soldier as those who betrayed him ascended to his former rank.
After a catastrophic defeat leaves the Korean navy with a scant twelve ships, YI Sun-shin is reinstated to his former rank and given the insurmountable task of leading these few ships against the invading Japanese army. Everyone around him believes the mission to be futile, after all how can twelve ships stand a chance against an invading armada of over 330 Japanese vessels? YI must deal with his faltering commanders, doubting sun, and the fear that grips the hearts of his men, all while making the final preparations for a battle that statistically he can not win. Knowing the importance of a final stand, Admiral YI Sun-shin disobeys orders to abandon the navy and transfer his men to ground units and leads his fear-riddled men into battle - if only to buy ground forces the time they need to protect the capital city. By strategically baiting the Japanese force to sail into the Myeongnyang Strait - a thin stretch of water with particularly rough waters - Admiral YI has placed the Korean's last line of defense.
Going into this movie, I honestly didn't know what to expect. I'd assumed it was going to be some over-the-top high-octane action flick with goofy camera work that simply exploited the historical context of the film. Boy was I absolutely dead wrong in that estimation. 'The Admiral: Roaring Currents' is one of the most thrilling films I've seen in a great long time. Taking pages out of the 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World' playbook, director Kim Han-Min wisely keeps things calm and dramatic for much of the film's two hour run time. Rather than jumping into the action right out of the gate, the filmmakers take a lot of time to build up the dire situation the Korean forces face, introduce both Korean and Japanese characters as well as their personal motivations. We get time to care about the characters in meaningful ways that isn't just surface motivations. We actually feel for them and the sacrifices they make.
Things aren't all talk and drama either. When the action hits - it hits hard and fast. During the first naval battle, I don't think I blinked my eyes to took a breath during the entire sequence. Korea is not a newcomer to dramatic epic films and this is a massive production. While there is a lot of CGI trickery on display, the spectacular production design needs to be singled out for building eight scale historically accurate replica ships in addition to the numerous costumes and sets. Having these practical set pieces on display brings home the crushing reality of the battles and the intensity of these scenes. Everything feels real and tactile, so much so that when cannon balls rip through the hulls of warships, or when swards are drawn for close combat - the hairs on my arm stood on end and I starred wide-eyed at my screen.
On top of the incredible production design, this film is populated with an incredible cast that is absolutely committed to their characters. From lead star Choi Min-Sik, to Seung-ryong Ryu as General Kurushima to Ku Jin as the mute love of a Korean sailer - every character has a place and a purpose to the film. Not a character is wasted being built up so when someone meets their unfortunate end - you feel it right in your guts. the near-perfect pacing of this film exploits all of the quieter character moments in order to make the furious action scenes feel that much more intense and important.
After the film was over, I had to do some research about the real event. As with any movie, there is some historic dramatic license to make the movie more interesting - but not as much as you'd think. If records of the event are to be believed, a lot of this movie is spot on. The actual battle details may not have played out exactly as they did on screen, but the cursory details of the event are there. Also helping this movie is the accuracy of Korean Naval battle tactics. After doing some quick and light reading, it doesn't appear that too many liberties were taken on that point, which leads me to love this movie even more. I can't help but enjoy a movie that keeps me plastered to my couch while also teaching me something I never knew. Admittedly I am not a historic battle scholar so I could be completely duped by what was presented on screen and what I read. but who cares? As a movie - 'The Admiral: Roaring Currents' was an incredible visual splendor.
I try to go to the theater as often as I can to enjoy films, it's just part of the movie watching experience that has been engrained in me since birth. Apparently 'The Admiral: Roaring Currents' got a limited release in theaters state side and I am absolutely ticked off this one didn't make it my way. If there is ever a movie I wish I had seen on a big screen, this one is it. I can only imagine what this movie looked like on theater screens. Given the quality of this absolutely beautiful Blu-ray, I have a good idea. Now I just need to upgrade to a gigantic 100 inch UHD screen. I am usually reticent to give any film, regardless of quality or reputation a full five star score, but 'The Admiral: Roaring Currents' left me absolutely stunned and I immediately started watching the film again.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Admiral: Roaring Currents' arrives on Blu-ray from CJ Entertainment pressed on a BD50 disc. Housed in a standard case with slip cover, the disc plays through a couple release trailers before reaching the main menu. Be warned, the disc is set to automatically play an English Dubbed DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. I strongly suggest you go to settings and select the Korean Language DTS-HD 5.1 or LPCM 2.0 track with English Subtitles.
Aside from ever so slight banding and an infinitesimally small bit of video noise during a dark scene - 'The Admiral: Roaring Currents' has an absolutely spectacular 2.40:1 1080p transfer. Shot digitally, clarity and fine detail is exquisite. You can see every bit of detail in the intricate warships, the ornate armor, and the war-battered faces. Then you have the color - this is an extremely colorful movie. Primaries get plenty of pop to them and the Japanese commanders' replica armor is simply gorgeous. Blacks and shadows also are given plenty of room to breathe with minimal (if any) instances of crush allowing for an incredible sense of three dimensional space. Like I mentioned before there is some slight banding and image noise, but those are kept to transitions and never really encroach the main picture. This is simply a flawless demo-worthy Blu-ray image.
'The Admiral: Roaring Currents' also makes big waves in the audio department. As I mentioned previously, the disc's default setting is the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track (not Dolby as indicated on the box art). This track is fine enough, but I hate dubbing. It feels so hollow and lifeless most of the time so I strongly encourage you to visit the settings menu and switch things over to the Korean 5.1 track. This track has so much power going through it, I thought my subwoofer was going to fly off my shelf - in the best way possible! During the calmer, quieter first half - levels rarely fluctuate from the midranges. When the heavy action sound effects kick in, this is one glorious track! Levels retain stability so you don't have to worry about any distortion while at the same time the mix never gets so intense that you feel like you have to ride the volume controls. As can be expected by a film such as this, imaging is absolutely marvelous. Dialogue, sound effects and the sumptuous score by Tae-seong Kim have plenty of space to occupy. This is an outstanding movie that's made all the better with thrilling audio tracks.
Making Of: (HD 4:58) This tragically brief making of is fascinating and leaves you wanting much more as tehy detail the making of the armor and the ships.
Highlights: (SD 30:09) This is an odd collection of scenes from the movie - almost like they were assembled for an incomplete EPK since they're already in the movie and aren't extended in any way.
Teaser Trailer: (HD 0:53) This is a quick and loud preview.
Original Trailer: (HD 1:23) A better paced trailer that does a much cleaner job depicting the movie.
This is why I love watching every movie I can. Being someone who doesn't discriminate in their viewing allowed me the opportunity to watch this movie - one that I probably would have never seen otherwise. 'The Admiral: Roaring Currents' stands as a new favorite film - one that I will be frequently pushing in the faces of any of my friends or family willing to watch. If they're not willing I intend to recreate the conditions set forth by Kubrick in 'A Clockwork Orange.' I was hoping to enjoy this film when I put the disc in my player, but I never expected to love it as much as I did. With the outstanding audio and picture quality on this disc and the thin smattering of extras, this is easily a very highly recommended Blu-ray for anyone willing to give it a shot. And with that last word, I'm off to watch this one for the third time in a week.