‘Roaring Currents’ takes epic sea battle to big screen

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‘Roaring Currents’ takes epic sea battle to big screen


Choi Min-sik (left) of “Oldboy” fame tackles his most ambitious role yet, the Joseon Admiral Yi Sun-sin in the upcoming film “Roaring Currents.” Half of the film depicts the Battle of Myeongnyang, during which Yi fought off 330 Japanese ships with just 12 of his own. Provided by CJ Entertainment

In October 1597, the Battle of Myeongnyang raged in waters off the southwestern coast of Korea, near Jindo.

It could have been exceptional luck, strategy or the turn of the tides that saw Admiral Yi Sun-sin triumph over a fleet of 330 Japanese ships, with just 12 of his own. But regardless, when it was announced that the story of this epic battle would be made into a film, many wondered if the project was too ambitious.

At a press conference for “Roaring Currents” on Monday, director Kim Han-min joined cast members to talk about his decision to take on one of the greatest moments in Korean history.

“There have been movies about Yi Sun-sin before, but never before on the Battle of Myeongnyang,” said Kim, who made his mark on period action films with “The War of the Arrows.”

Choi Min-sik, best known for his performance in “Oldboy,” was cast as the legendary Admiral, whose shoes were tough to fill.

“After being approached by the director I thought a lot about it,” he said.

At times, Choi said he felt embarrassed, other times frustrated. “How do you depict a man like that?” he asked.

Comparing his trademark character with that from the Korean thriller that catapulted him to global stardom, Choi said playing a “man locked up for 15 years” was a lot easier. “I had more freedom to act because it’s not like I had someone to ask how that goes.”

On the other hand, trying to mirror a national hero was fraught with uncertainty. “It felt like I was outside a gate, asking him to give me guidance, trying to catch a glimpse and he just had his back turned toward me.

Choi’s confusion is evident in the first hour of the film, during which Yi is on land and must decide what to do with an impending war on his hands.

When Yi does finally take to the high seas, Choi is more in his element. Never asking his underlings to do something he wouldn’t himself, Yi’s orders come after much deliberation and keen observation of the waves.

Kim pointed out that the focal point of his film is indeed the battle scenes, which take up half the film. So when the hour-long transition was questioned, Kim was quick to retort that the prelude was pivotal to the action that came after.

“For a sea war to be a success, it has to be relatable and to do that you need to relate to the character, or Lee’s character,” he said. “I think [drama] is just as important as the battle scenes that come later.”

The admiral aside, the film is filled with interesting characters whose stories, for the most part, go untold.

There is a mute wife waiting for her husband’s safe return, the Japanese soldier who works as a snitch for Yi, and a handful of patriotic characters who seem all too eager to lay down their lives for the motherland.

And of course, there are also those who are pure evil.

Of these, Ryu Seung-ryong’s take on Kurushima Michifusa, a top commanding samurai, is impressive. With his heavily-lined eyes, his presence can hardly be ignored and is very reminiscent of the doomed Xerxes, from the movie “300.”

He is a man obsessed with defeating Yi. And compared to Yi’s compassionate leadership, Kurushima is bent on making his mark purely for the sake of it. A boat full of his deceased enemies sent back to their homeland illustrates this point.

While a Japanese audience may not agree with Korea’s version of events, Choi said that his co-star, Japanese actor Ryohei Otani “deserved applause” for his courage in playing Junsa, a Japanese soldier who sides with Admiral Yi.

“I didn’t think too much about it, but people started asking me as I was filming [about the dilemmas of working on a nationalistic Korean film]. But more than anything else, I wanted to work with the director,” said Otani, who did compile a list of points that bothered him before shooting.

“Eventually I came to terms with it,” he said, adding that he hoped the film would be well received in Japan as well as in Korea.

But politics and orientation aside, Kim said he was most concerned about “showing a side of Yi Sun-sin never before seen.”

Having spent a year on the film, Kim said he hoped his project would be relatable. “Even in Japan, too, I hope it will encourage people to look back on history and discover things they didn’t know before.”

The film opens on July 30.

By CARLA SUNWOO [carlasunwoo@joongang.co.kr ]

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