I am a big fan of Asian cinema and movies. Loved the over the top Chinese kung fu (still think Drunken Master is the epitome of Jackie Chan’s work) and martial art films and the suspense thrillers that South Korea (Old Boy, anyone?) has been making recently. While the films from before 2000 were usually low budget and more campy/kitschy, recent movies from the East have been well done and more concerned and attentive to story, effects, characterization, and utilizing the medium to greater narrative potential. (Similar to the evolution of film in the West because our early films were not exactly high art either).
Honestly, this is probably why I have no issue paying for Netflix or Hulu because there are always random foreign movies and television shows to watch and enjoy. (Seriously, Korean dramas are infinitely better than 90% of American ones) During the weekend, a recommendation kept popping up and I finally gave in. I saw The Admiral: Roaring Currents on Saturday and was pleasantly delighted by the film.
Right? Don’t you want to go see this now? Anyhow, the film got me thinking and as usual I felt the urge to write a post on some thoughts. As always SPOILERS ahead.
The film, as seen in the trailer, tells the story of the Battle of Myeongnyang, a famous naval battle in 1597 between the Korean Joseon kingdom’s navy led by Admiral Yi Sun-sin against the invading Japanese navy in the Myeongnyang Strait. However, the actual battle does not really happen till near the end of the movie as most of the film is about Yi Sun-sin strategizing how to overcome the greater Japanese force and deal with his dwindling, frightened soldiers. In fact, this is one of the core themes of the film; fear and how to utilize it. Not coincidentally, it also happens to be the first lesson. Fear is simply an emotion and state of mind that can be used, controlled, and wielded like any other tool at your disposal.
All of Yi Sun-sin’s men have heard about the vast number of ships that the Japanese navy has. On top of that, they are aware of the losses suffered by another general at the hands of Japanese ships and the massive army that is on route to the capital. They are a small band of warriors, only 12 ships, against the full might of a superior force. Every single soldier is basically shitting themselves and spreading their fear and doubt to their fellow fighters and the peasants of the small village they are currently at. Yi Sun-sin sees this and understands that his men have lost heart. He knows that the odds are stacked against them and that they are probably doomed; however, he also is aware that the loss of hope is the worst possibly outcome. For his country and people to survive whatever outcome awaits, Sun-sin knows that they cannot succumb to the uncertainty and horror of their fear.
While I definitely love big action movies with idiotic fight sequences, what I really love and prefer about these types of films is that the protagonist has to implore some actual strategy to win. Frankly, the best generals, fighters, and battles were not the ones that were just tough and hearty. The ones that stand the tests of time and are remembered throughout history are the ones that involved a bit of intelligence, cleverness, and strategy. The Battle of Thermopylae (aka 300 Spartans thing) only happened because Leonidas was not an idiot and realized he could use the area to his advantage against the superior numbers of the Persian army. Same for most other well known military individuals, honestly. Strategy and intelligence trump sheer will, power, or strength 9 out of 10 times.
Yi Sun-sin knows how perilous and dire his circumstances are. However, he is no ordinary soldier. He is an admiral of the Joseon kingdom. The Japanese navy know this man. Its generals and admirals have lost battles and ships and men to this Admiral Yi Sun-sin. They know what he is capable of and a few among the Japanese ranks fear what he can do. Yi Sun-sin knows this and decides to use fear as a weapon and source of inspiration. He faces the immense Japanese forces alone, ordering his forces to stay behind, because of their fear. During the initial battle, he uses his knowledge of the waters and weather to trick his opponents and over power them. Granted its only the vanguard of the full force but that small victory inspires his men to finally move and great fear in the Japanese forces.
Eventually, Yi Sun-sin’s actions are enough to show the Japanese navy what they can expect if they continue to act against Joseon. The Japanese navy knows the costs of victory and turn away instead. That is the final lesson. Sometimes the only win we can achieve is simply making the other player leave. It’s not total. It’s not glorious. There will probably not be ballads and stories told about how you kept them at bay or from completely winning, but it keeps you alive and able to go on. And that is something worthwhile.
Thus endeth today’s lesson.