"The Admiral: Roaring Currents" is an ambitious, epic and expensive historical action-drama from South Korea. This movie can already be considered a milestone of Korean cinema from several points of view. It became the biggest film of all time at the South Korean box office in 2014, with more than 17 million admissions and the first local film to gross over US$ 100 million. The costumes, set pieces and weapons were designed after extensive research that even Japanese historians were amazed by the reconstructions of the Japanese warships. General Yi Sun- sin is portrayed by the most famous and according to many including myself also the best contemporary actor from South Korea; the charismatic Choi Min-sik who rose to fame with his roles in the spy thriller "Shiri", the mystery-thriller "Oldboy" and the psychological horror movie "I Saw the Devil" among others.
The movie revolves around the Battle of Myeongnyang around 1597 which took place during the Imjin War when Japan tried to invade the Korean peninsula and even parts of Ming Dynasty China. After a disastrous defeat, the Korean fleet only consisted of 13 warships while the Japanese gathered 133 warships and around 200 logistical support ships. The Japanese fleet was headed for the Korean capital Hanyang to support their land's army but general Yi Sun-shin decided to battle the superior enemy in a strait. By using the dangerous currents in the strait and a tactically well chosen emplacement for his fleet, the admiral was able to destroy several Japanese warships and to push back the enemy. The unexpected defeat shocked the Japanese and encouraged the Koreans. Joseon Dynasty's navy was able to regroup with Ming Dynasty's army and the Japanese were expelled out of the Korean peninsula the next year.
The film shows us the weeks before the famous battle, an extensive depiction of the battle itself and its immediate aftermath and a short look beyond in the concluding minutes.
This movie is separated in two almost equal parts. The first hour introduces the viewers to the historical context, the desperate condition of the Korean navy and the inhabitants in general and the most important characters from both sides of the belligerents. I feel that this part of the movie is slightly too long. Instead of focusing on too many characters and a lot of tactical dialogs, the movie could have shown us the origins of the war to get a better idea of the entire context. It would have been a great idea to start the film with Won Gyun's disastrous defeat against the Japanese navy during the Battle of Chilcheollyang and to quickly show how a nearly defeated country arose from its ashes to gather for a final decisive battle. While the set pieces and special effects look stunning, the dialogs on the first hour of the movie are exhausting and the acting is only of an average quality despite the promising cast. Both the acting and the dialogs are somewhat wooden. There is no character one could somehow sympathize with and the acting is not what viewers will retain from this movie.
The movie gets a boost during the second hour that is almost entirely dedicated to the battle itself. Some people might think that almost an hour of naval battle might be overlong and repetitive but that's not the case in here. This is one of the very finest, if not the very best naval battle ever shown in cinema. There are many ups and downs during the battle, several different strategies are used and even the fights themselves vary from cannon fire, over confrontations with bows and arrows and intense sword fights to a few elements of martial arts duels. A few clever tactical tricks from both sides are also added to the epic battle. Acting, choreographies, images, score, sounds, special effects and stunts are reaching one high point after another in the entertaining second half of this movie. The last five minutes after the final battle are a short but nice conclusion closing the circle to the beginning of the film that gives the viewers the occasion to calm down again.
While the set pieces and most parts of the story are faithful to the historical background, some elements depicting the different historical characters and parts of the battle itself might be dramatized to a certain degree. That's why the movie has a slightly patriotic touch but this is only some minor criticism as this film isn't as exaggerated as many contemporary Chinese war movies for example.
In the end, fans of epic war movies will get what they desire. The naval battle is detailed, diversified, emotional, entertaining, epic and intense. It's probably the best naval battle in the history of cinema. This stunning second half pardons for a few lengths in the opening hour that sets the context of the battle in a solid but also slightly dusty and lengthy way. This film isn't the best Korean movie of all times by any means and maybe slightly over-hyped. Still, this is better than any comparable war history movie from the Western world I have seen in the past ten years or more. If you want to see even better Korean war movies, I can highly suggest you "Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War" from 2004 and "My Way" from 2011.