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Quickly rising to the top of the South Korean box office following its opening on July 30, writer-director Kim Han-min’s 16th-century historical epic is stirring nationwide enthusiasm that may be mostly lost on audiences Stateside, where muted response can probably be expected, although the film’s expansion to offshore Asian markets should generate additional momentum.
The Admiral concerns Yi Sun-shin (Choi Min-sik), the disgraced commander of the Joseon dynasty navy who was imprisoned and tortured for failing to neutralize a Japanese double-agent in his ranks, only to be recalled to his post when a second invasion from Japan appeared imminent in 1597. Dealing with a severely reduced naval force consisting of an estimated 12 warships following the fleet’s near-devastation during a major battle while he was imprisoned, Yi has scant time to rally his sailors, prepare his battleships and devise a defense against a Japanese fleet of more than 300.
Recognizing that even against an overpowering aggressor the Koreans hold a strategic advantage in their home territory, Yi dispatches his spies to ascertain the scope and configuration of the Japanese fleet, commanded by his former opponent admiral Wakizaka (Cho Jin-woong). What they discover puzzles even Yi: Wakizaka has been sidelined by the arrival of Kurushima (Ryu Seung-ryong), a “pirate” appointed by the Japanese ruler to wage the battle against Yi, with Wakizaka’s ships lending support as their army pushes overland toward the capital in the meantime.
Yi determines to engage the Japanese in a fight to the finish at the strait of Myeong-Nyang off the southwest coast of the Korean peninsula, a region he’s familiar with for its changeable weather and treacherous currents. The admiral acquires substantial firepower by loading dozens of deadly canons onboard the few remaining Korean vessels and boldly sails his flagship out to confront his opponents, entirely uncertain whether his ruse and the courage of his forces will hold long enough to draw the Japanese navy into his trap.
The battle of Myeong-Nyang is considered one of the most significant victories of Korean naval history, pitting Yi’s dozen ships against hundreds of Japanese vessels, and as such the outcome is well-known to domestic audiences. Assertively nationalistic, the film emphasizes the heroism of the Korean combatants, contrasted with the imputed ruthlessness and cruelty of the Japanese.
These thematic imperatives and the epic scope of the film tend to reduce the principal characters to types that function to reinforce historical events, rather than to develop narrative complexity. Usually reliably expressive, Choi is in far different territory here than his recent role in Luc Besson’s Lucy or any of his other memorable gangster turns, constrained by playing the part of a revered historical figure. Often costumed in bulky armor with his features obscured by a full beard and long hair or blood and grime, Choi’s performance lacks his typical immediacy, holding the character at a distance throughout the film. The Japanese commanders (played by Korean actors) are more interesting for their internecine conflicts than any brief direct confrontation with Yi.
Kim, who saw major box office success with his 2011 period action film War of the Arrows, orchestrates some rousing seaborne set pieces, featuring eight replica Korean and Japanese ships purpose-built for the production and adequately augmented with CGI techniques. Much of the naval action is realistically and thrillingly staged with blazing cannon fire and slashing swordplay that sufficiently diverts attention from the sometimes unrealistic special effects. With a sequel reportedly in the works already that will presumably take on later exploits in his heroic career, Admiral Yi is as likely to achieve mythic status onscreen as he has in historic accounts.
Opens: Aug. 15 (CJ Entertainment )
Production company: Big Stone Pictures
Cast: Choi Min-sik, Ryu Seung-ryong, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Myung-gon, Jin-gu, Lee Jung-hyun
Screenwriters: KimHan-min, Jun Chul-hong
Producers: Kim Joo-gyeong, Jung Byeong-wook
Executive producer: Jeong Tae-sung
Director of photography: Ha Gyeong-ho
Production designer: Jang Chun-sup
Costume designer: Kwon Yoo-jin
Editor: Kim Chang-ju
Music: Kim Tae-song
No rating, 127 minutes
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