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[HanCinema's Take] The "Admiral" and his Impossible Fleet

2014/08/23 | Permalink

I'm always intrigued when patterns emerge in space-time; plausible improbabilities that speak to universal truths, or magically mirror the collective's consciousness. These uncanny alignments aren't always meaningful, or random, but there's a persistent allure to be found in such synchronicity; as if, when aligned, a precious pinhole appears, a vague vantage point awaiting some some golden thread to pierce and grab the message in bottle before it's too late.

Last week a new Korea box office champion was crowned as Kim Han-min's "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" (2014) cruised past Bong Joon-ho's hybrid hit "The Host" (2006), becoming the peninsula's highest grossing film of all time.

"Roaring Currents", Kim's second dynastic dip back in time, after the 7.5M stub success of "Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon" (2011),  currently has over 14.6M admissions; a hefty haul that's already well past the 13M claimed by Bong's beast. This glorious cinematic re-imagining of Battle of Myeongnyang (October 26, 1597) has, with Choi Min-sik as the ineffable Admiral Yi Sun-Shin (1545-1598), became not only Korea's new flagship film, but a timely and twisted treatment of the terrible tragedy that hit the country back in April.

Around 300 people died in the MV Sewol's sinking. It was a nauseating event that shocked the country and sparked heavy criticism towards the surviving crew and captain, as well as the organisational procedures designed to protect and serve. To symbolise the nation's lost, a campaigned was started soon after that encourage the public to wear yellow ribbons, a open gesture of solidarity that was supported by the Pope Francis during a recent state visit.

Sewol's sinking was a heartfelt horror that terrorised the country and united through heartache and Han, but the curious capsizing also ignited concerns around maritime safety practices and procedures and, currently, the the surviving captain and crew on trail. On Friday it was reported that Kim Young-Oh (one of the fathers) had to be hospitalised after sinking into a 40-day hunger strike when news came in that his 16-year-old daughter was lost.

Imagine hearing the announcement to don your life jacket, only to then have to wait and wonder at the water rising. When some of the young survivors testified, they described how they waited for the water so they might float up to the Dutch door to escape; a level-headed solution that came from an elected class leader. They made it to the hallway, and then all the way to courtroom - "homicide through wilful negligence" are the charges against the surviving ferrymen, with death be a possible punishment.

Up to his own death Admiral Yi Sun-Shin enforced his own personal code of honour, repeatedly hiding his wounds/weakness from his superiors and crewmen in service to the task at hand: during his military exam Yi broke his leg after falling off his horse, but splintered it himself and soldiered on; in 1586 he received an arrow in the leg from a Manchurian marauder, but his comrades where non the wiser; and during the Battle of Noryang (1598), this legends final chapter, and despite being fatally struck by a stray bullet, he chose to conceal his injury to avoid demoralising his followers - dying quietly in his cabin while the war drums boomed on above. He embodied his own "three essentials of the warrior: humility, discernment, and courage", and showed an unbridled commitment to Korea's cause even when the political powers that be beckoned his destruction. 

After failing a rigged test of loyalty set for him by a cowardly consort, Yi was forced once again to the capital, this time in a cage carried by ox cart to account for his patriotic crimes. His life was filled with such timely tests; great pressures that revealed the character of the man as an (awe)inspiring "national symbol of honesty and self-sacrifice".

Kim's cinematic re-imagining of this courageous captain, in the wake of Sewol, has resonated with Korea's collective consciousness and continues to attract mindful mourners in record numbers. It's the type of mystical connection Carl Jung would've wondered about: a curious cinematic wake that looks back to the best to move forward from the fettered, a cathartic callback hidden in hype and Hollywood.

Kim has done this before though, except in "Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon" it was history itself that needed a worthy hero. Injo of Joseon (who reigned from 1623 to 1649, some twenty-five years after Yi's death) was the grandson of King Seonjo (whose reign started the year after Yi began studying the traditional Korean military arts - archery, swordsmanship, and horse-back riding), both of whom received militant moral guidance as either the anachronistic archer ("Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon") or anchorman ("The Admiral: Roaring Currents"). In "Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon" Park Hae-il plays Na-min, a war-torn warrior protecting his own kingdom with his futile King crumbles under invading Qing Dynasty.

Both Na-min and Yi are characters of conviction. Like Fleming's Bond, Kim's hero's are emboldened from something 'within' themselves; an internal motivator pointed positively towards an universal ethic. The difference is matter for space-time: both are (moral)messages in bottles, but where are Na-min is positively affecting the past, Yi's arrive on our present shores to assure and inspire. It is the ineffable Korean 'Han' cinematically realized and at play in Kim's two intuitive Joseon gems. 

Although Kim's "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" is currently leading the charge at the box office, it's not the only ship in the sea to emerge in the aftermath of Sewol. Last weekend second and third place fell to two other seafaring features, both of which take us aboard for real-world drama ("Haemoo" by Sim Seong-bo) or a cross-pollinated period fantasy ("Pirates" by Lee Seok-hoon). These shipshape signals tempt us woolgathering a golden thread through their alignment, to fantasise about the ferry through water-tight dreams of heroes and hopefuls.   

- C.J. Wheeler (chriscjw@gmail.com@KoreaOnTheCouch)

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