A look at a different kind of naval battle with the Martial Lord of Loyalty

I’ve long had a love affair with foreign film, from my days of watching old bootleg VHS Kung-Fu movies to my explorations into European and Asian art house cinema during my travels abroad in the service. I have a particular fondness for Korean cinema, with their mix of existential dread, high visceral action, and cultural idiosyncrasies woven into their narratives that yield stories unlike anything else in the world. One of my recent favorites is the historical drama The Admiral: Roaring Currents, which recounts one of the most spectacular victories in the history of naval warfare.

Roaring Currents is an account of the Battle of Myeongnyang that took place in October of 1597. Japanese forces under the rule of the great Daimyo/Samurai warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi were bent on domination of China and Korea. The first Invasion campaign years earlier led to a shaky truce, but much of Korea was occupied and put under harsh subjugation. The second campaign was initiated in 1597, with Japanese forces bent on capturing the capital that is now known as Seoul. Standing in their way was the was naval forces of the Joseon dynasty, led by the legendary commander Admiral Yi-Sun Sin.

Yi-Sun Sin was a brilliant tactician and fierce warrior, but even he could not fully defeat the infighting, treachery, and incompetence of his country’s own squabbling politicians and fellow high ranking military officials. At one point thanks to the manipulations of a Japanese double agent, Yi was arrested, stripped of rank, and tortured nearly to the point of death. However, as the second invasion campaign began and the Korean fleets were decimated by superior numbers and inept leadership, King Seonjo quickly reinstates Admiral Yi so that he might somehow stop the advance.

The film begins with the Admiral making his plans and consolidating his troops for the oncoming battle, but many of the Korean soldiers are demoralized by the previous crushing defeat at the Battle of Chilchonryang, now terrified by the sheer numbers and ruthlessness of the Japanese. Yi was no stranger to facing overwhelming odds, and wisely capitalized on the technological superiority his Navy possessed. Korean naval vessels at the time had an advantage over the Japanese warships thanks to their stout oak and pine wood hulls that yielded incredibly durable vessels. In comparison, the long Japanese vessels constructed of cedar and fir were far lighter. They were designed to capitalize on swift travel on the open sea, but could not maneuver nearly as well as the Korean ships and were far more vulnerable to cannon fire. The difference in durability also meant that the Koreans could employ much heavier cannons in far greater numbers, allowing for greater standoff distance.

Beyond this, the real trump card in the Korean arsenal was the famous Geobukseon or “Turtle ship”, a hulking battleship with cannon ports on all sides, massive plates of armor adorned with spikes covering its deck, and a terrifying iron dragon head piece at front that housed a large cannon and spewed forth concealing smoke, while also serving as the impact point for the ship as a giant battering ram. Unfortunately, all of the turtle ships had been squandered and destroyed in the previous Chilchonryang battle. Yi was facing a crisis unlike anything he had encountered before, but he had one last saving grace to gamble on that would turn the tide of the war, quite literally in this case.

Admiral Yi chose to make his last stand at the strait of Mingyeong. The straight was known for having extremely powerful currents, but it also manifested a very peculiar natural phenomenon that Yi would use to his advantage: every 3 hours, the flow of the straight actually changes direction. Yi hoped to lure the Japanese force into the straight and canalize them in a choke point. For the Japanese fleet commander Kurushima Michifusa, the strait was indeed a tempting prospect. Kurushima was familiar with the power of the water flow and hoped to use it as a speed boost for his ships to smash through the Korean fleet and quickly reach their northern destination. However, they were woefully unprepared for its mighty turbulence and Yi’s masterful maneuvers.

In the first phase of the battle, the current flowed north, so Yi positioned his lone flagship north of the opening and engaged with cannon fire. The Japanese responded with volley after volley of musket fire, charging forth in hopes of bursting straight through. However, the choppy seas disorient the Japanese and they begin colliding into one another, several ships sinking in the process. Seeing this incredible turn of events, the other Korean soldiers in ships that had been hiding reluctantly in the bay came out in force, emboldened by Yi’s success and ferocity. As the Japanese commit further forces into the strait to break the stale mate, the tide of the river begins to reverse. Powerful whirlpools ensnare the Japanese fleet, and the Korean vessels use their newfound spiritual and nautical momentum to smash through the Japanese front lines. By the day’s end, approximately 30 Japanese ships had been destroyed, whereas the Koreans had not lost a single vessel.

The Admiral stars Choi Min-sik as Yi-Sun Sin. Choi is one of the most famously revered and respected actors in all of Korea, gaining international notoriety as the star of Park Chan-wooks masterpiece Old Boy. Casting one of the most biggest Korean stars ever in a movie about arguably the most culturally significant battle in Korean history in some way seems tantamount to casting Tom Hanks or Matt Damon as General George Washington in a movie about the harrowing events at Valley Forge. In fact, one could actually draw a pretty solid comparison between The Admiral and Roland Emerich’s revolutionary war movie The Patriot starring Mel Gibson. All of which is to say, an element of nationalist propaganda within the film is perhaps unavoidable. That said, one must recognize the particulars of Korean culture and the history of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese relations in order to properly put the proceedings in context.

Though I was an outsider to the culture, the Korean citizens and fellow service members I befriended during my time stationed in Seoul attempted to explain the long standing sense of animosity between Korea and Japan. The invasions during the Japanese warring states period are further compounded by the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 through World War II. As such, The Admiral feels decidedly maudlin and nationalistic, if not outright jingoistic in its celebration of their famed Admiral. With that understanding, while it is certainly fair to make criticisms of its film making aspects, one cant help but get swept up in the emotional stakes of the famous battle. In my latter years, I have found myself being susceptible to this manipulation more and more, specifically in Korean films such as The Age of Shadows and Operation Chromite. I guess I’m simply getting soft in my old age. Nonetheless, I have always and will continue to enjoy tales of unwavering bravery, integrity, honor, and self sacrifice. In that regard, The Admiral: Roaring Currents is a fine example of those qualities in battle, and an excellent view of one of the great naval battles in history that people from every nation can learn from.