SEOUL — Since April, when hundreds of high school students lost their lives in the sinking of the Sewol ferry, South Korea has been a nation in shock and mourning. The country prides itself on having risen from postwar poverty, and many have asked how a routine ferry ride could turn so catastrophic.
At this time of national soul-searching, one of South Korea's oldest and most treasured stories of triumph has struck a chord with moviegoers. "The Admiral: Roaring Currents," a period action film, tells the story of the 1597 Battle of Myeongnyang, a naval victory regarded as a key national triumph by many South Koreans.
"The Admiral: Roaring Currents," distributed by CJ Entertainment, ended last weekend with box office revenue of $80.4 million, surpassing "Frozen" ($76 million) as the top-grossing film here of 2014. It opened July 30 and set records for highest-grossing opening day and weekend.
The film has an appealing narrative of against-the-odds triumph over Korea's old rival, Japan. Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910to '45, and relations remain plagued by the lingering resentment of that period and continued disputes over historical issues.
The star of Battle of Myeongnyang, and of "The Admiral: Roaring Currents," was Adm. Yi Sun-sin, who led a small fleet to improbable victory over a much larger Japanese fleet.
Yi's strategy of luring the Japanese fleet to an area where the Koreans could take advantage of favorable currents is credited as the reason an outnumbered Korean side was able to win the battle. The speed and direction of the currents, off the Korean peninsula's southwest coast, forced the Japanese to attack in small groups, diminishing the clout of their numerical upper hand.
Starring Choi Min-sik (best known for his role in director Park Chan-wook's "Old Boy"), "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" was directed by Kim Han-min, who also found success with his previous period film, "War of the Arrows." That film, set during the second Manchu invasion of Korea in 1636, was the top-grossing South Korean film of 2011.
"The Admiral: Roaring Currents" opened in major North American markets, including Los Angeles, last week.
The 128-minute film is roughly divided into two sections, the first focusing on Adm. Lee's planning for the battle, the second featuring the swashbuckling naval clash. The actions scenes are intense, showing sophisticated visual effects with realistic period-era warships trading cannonball volleys.
Some moviegoers have felt that the lengthy planning scenes were underwhelming. "While the second half was quite good, I thought the first half was boring," said Lee Dong-ju, 23, an office worker.
Some Koreans imagine the Battle of Myeongnyang as an upbeat metaphor for their country: a small, resource-poor nation that through hard work and ingenuity was able to prosper despite tall odds. Some have suggested that the lingering grief from April's Sewol ferry sinking has left South Korean moviegoers eager to be reminded of this narrative of courage and triumph.
"The topic [of the movie] is uniting the country, which has been divided by the Sewol incident. Everybody knows all about Yi Sun-sin and just enjoys watching him beat the Japanese," said Kim Jeong-yoon, a 22-year-old college student who saw the film last weekend.
The Sewol ferry sank April 16, resulting in the deaths of more than 300 people, most of them high school students on a field trip. The national pain and shame of the accident worsened as details emerged showing that the sinking was at least somewhat preventable, apparently attributable to the ferry being clumsily navigated and dangerously overloaded. The government's emergency response has also been criticized for being late and ineffective.
Critics say this has left the public craving a story with a real homegrown hero. "With many people still upset about the Sewol, South Koreans right now desperately want to see something with a morally upright character," said Kang Yoo-jung, a professor of film studies at Kangnam University and a prominent film critic. "In the movie, Adm. Yi displays brave leadership in a difficult situation, which is really appealing to audiences right now."
Other critics have also pointed to how South Korea's movie screens are dominated by a few large companies, including CJ Entertainment, making it easier for certain big-budget films to reach large audiences. "It's not an organic popularity at all," said Nemo Kim, a lecturer in film studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
CJ owns CGV, a company of multiplex theaters across the country, and upon its release "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" was being shown on a little more than half of all the country's screens. "
A statue of Yi stands tall in Gwanghwamun Square, the symbolic epicenter of the South Korean capital, Seoul.
In the square, families of youths that died in the ferry sinking are holding a sit-in demonstration, calling for a thorough investigation into the causes of the sinking. Pope Francis was scheduled to lead a beatification ceremony for Korean Catholic martyrs on Saturday morning, and the government and organizers have warned that the families will have to move.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times