Roaring Currents is a big letdown, and here’s why.
Okay, so it’s been a while, and I thank the people still subscribed to this blog for their continued attention. Today I am going to review a movie that is breaking box office records here in Korea. It’s called Myeongryang in Korean and Roaring Currents in English. The synopsis: During the Imjin War, (1592-1598), a Japanese fleet of more than 300 ships is invading Korea, and Admiral Yi Sun-shin has 12 ships with which to defend the country. It’s not a spoiler if I tell you that Yi was successful. That would be like saying the Titanic sunk in the film Titanic. As such, Yi is a revered national hero in Korea, and very respected in Japan for his strategy that defeated the Japanese navy against overwhelming odds.
I love war movies, so I was really excited to see this, especially since it had been getting such rave reviews in the Korean media. Korean films that Korean moviegoers like are generally good films. Some of my favorite Korean war-genre films include Shilmido, Taegukki Brotherhood, and 71: Into The Fire. As far as other war films outside of Korea, I liked Platoon, All’s Quiet on the Western Front, Saving Private Ryan, Joyeux Noel, Full Metal Jacket, and Inglourious Basterds. I’ll get to what it is about these films that I really liked later. At the same time, there are war movies I don’t like. I won’t name them here, but you can be sure they will appear later in my analysis.
So let’s get into my experience watching the film.
As my wife and I stepped into the theater I was in high anticipation of this film. The theater was packed. I had just watched Guardians of the Galaxy a few days earlier, and was fun as that was, I was in the mood for a real serious tension filled historical period film that would really deconstruct what happened centuries ago and let us know the motivations behind a historical hero I had been hearing about since childhood. Remember, this is a guy who has a prominent statue in downtown Seoul.
Remember, this is a guy who has a prominent statue in downtown Seoul.
So the movie starts, and Yi Sun-shin and his advisors are discussing the dire situation ahead of them. There’s one guy in there that looks sneaky and evil just from the way he looks and speaks. Everyone else is really handsome and noble looking, but this guy looks like he’d double cross his mother in a heartbeat. The movie just started, and I don’t know exactly who this person is, so it doesn’t register with me yet.
Then there’s a cut away to the Japanese side. They are discussing strategy. Immediately I burst out laughing. Want to know why? I’ll explain after the jump.
I am laughing uncontrollably and it’s only the second major scene of the film. Why? Because it is OBVIOUSLY obvious that although these are supposed to be Japanese admirals speaking Japanese, they are played by Korean actors who have little to no command of Japanese. I commend them for the effort, but it’s so distracting in scenes that last longer than 5 minutes to have people who have likely memorized their lines phonetically without knowing what means what speak to each other in heavily accented Japanese, sometimes pronouncing the same words differently, and sounding so unnatural. I’m a fan of analogies, and if you saw the World War II film Inglourious Basterds, there are several scenes completely in German or French. Thankfully Tarantino chose French and German actors for the film, or people who spoke well enough if the character demands it. But imagine if he had chosen backwater hicks from rural Alabama and shoved German dialogue in front of their faces, and they read it with a southern drawl. Iswood so clangin’ undies wur laja layj. (Es würde so klingen, und es wäre lächerlich. Google Translation of “It would sound like this, and it would sound ridiculous” attempted to be transliterated with my interpretation of a southern drawl.)
Maybe my explanation is not doing justice to my reaction. Here, for English speakers, watch this video.
Now imagine that the movie has scenes that sound like this from beginning to end.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they absolutely need to go out and hire hundreds upon hundreds of Japanese actors to play cannon fodder, and what are essentially stock villain characters (more on that later). But they could have pulled a Hunt for Red October, and just had them speaking Korean when only other Japanese are around. Additionally they could have hired Japanese actors to play the most important characters on the Japanese side… or at least get Korean actors who speak fluent Japanese… There are plenty.
Maybe I am staying on this point too long. While it is a major gripe I have with the film, it’s not the worst thing about it, distracting as it is.
My biggest gripe is that the Japanese side is portrayed as supremely evil and two dimensional in the film. Remember when I discussed the opening scene, about the tall handsome noble Koreans (and the one sneaky looking one). Well on the Japanese side, everyone is a short fat mustache twirler.
The actors themselves probably aren’t bad looking, but the way they are done up, they have perfectly twirlable mustaches, look very sneaky, and are generally not costumed to be handsome or noble looking.
They are stock characters. They are about as deep as Boris Badenov and and Natasha Fatale. They cut off the heads of their enemies and send them to their families. They speak arrogantly of the might of their military and their paltry opposition, and gosh darn it they are evil. EVIL! You might as well have played the imperial march from Star Wars whenever they walked in, because even sinister evil music is played when they are onscreen. (At least the score was pretty good though) They’re EVIL! They certainly look the part too. Except for that one guy who is a double agent or a traitor or something (I can’t tell if he was supposed to be Japanese because at the end the Japanese antagonist calls him a Korean once he learns he’s helping out the good Admiral.) He’s handsome. Oh yeah, and remember that sneaky Korean guy from the first scene? Well, he’s sneaky, he sabotages the Korean fleet, burning down the not yet completed turtle ship. What a Jerk! It’s almost as if you can say handsome = good, ugly = bad. To be fair the main antagonist isn’t totally ugly or fat… he’s kind of intimidating and is built up to look kind of like what Darth Vader looked like in Star Wars. You know he’s a badass just by looking at him. Problem is, he doesn’t have 1/10th of the characterization that good ol’ Anakin does.
Now some may be asking, why I take issue with the Japanese being portrayed as evil in this film. After all, they probably did plenty of evil things, like killing, raping, pillaging, enslaving, and terrorizing the Joseon people in the areas they controlled. That’s a fair point. I would compare this to the poorly-made Revolutionary War film starring Mel Gibson, The Patriot.
A good film for eating popcorn, but completely biased. Americans = good. British = evil bastards. In one laughable scene the British general marches along to Mel Gibson’s house and thanks him for caring for the British wounded, but decides that since he’s also taking care of the American wounded, his house must be burned to the ground. He promptly kills all the wounded American soldiers, Mel Gibson’s pre-pubescent son, and conscripts Mel Gibson’s slaves, saying that all slaves who join the British ranks will be given freedom at the end of hostilities. The slaves retort that they aren’t slaves, but they are working the land as FREE MEN!
I… I can’t even…. The Patriot is SO over the top to try to show you that Mel Gibson is a good guy, because for the rest of the film he’s going to be a bloodthirsty madman, so they have to show him as a guy who loves everyone, who doesn’t want to fight, and who is so nice, that random colored people who are not his slaves come to him to work on his plantation for free! How can the Brits ruin such a saint’s life? Simple, the Brits are evil!
Now multiply that by 10, because even the evil British general in The Patriot had a line where he had mercy upon the people, as he saw that once the war was over these people would once again be British subjects, and they should be treated with dignity… well at least when he wasn’t locking them in churches and burning the church into the ground…
No, these Japanese admirals don’t have any compassion for anything.
But why exactly is this a problem? Certainly a Korean-made film is bound to portray the Korean side as justified and right, and the Japanese side as wrong. Few World War II films humanize Adolf Hitler, or the SS, especially American made ones. I will attempt to explain why this is a problem.
First, Koreans grow up in a culture that unfortunately instils anti-Japanese sentiment into everyone, to the point that young children will proudly claim that they hate Japan, because hating Japan is an essential part of being Korean.
(Edit: On second thought, that’s perhaps going too far. Without going onto a tangent of the historical formation of the post-colonial Korean identity and the willful manipulation of the educational system by the postwar government, I will briefly say that sometimes an evil other is needed to cultivate a united sense of nationalism, and once the nation was solidified, this unabashed evil otherhood status of Japan continued far beyond what its initial purpose was, to the point that today, while being anti-Japanese is not a necessity to one’s own identity as a Korean, as several generations have been raised with anti-Japanese sentiment instilled by the school system (and Japan not doing much to counter it), the effect is that the sentiment is cultivated in society in ways that run deep)
I may have been a bit irresponsible in that previous sentence, but put it this way. I have had old Korean men tell me that they wish that tidal waves and earthquakes would send Japan sinking into the sea. I’ve had young Korean children talk about how those fucking Japs did terrible things to Korea (but couldn’t elaborate when I asked them to). The Korean online communities were rife with insensitive comments during the Fukushima disaster, saying those dirty Japs deserve it, because payback is a bitch. I went to a soccer game between Korea and Iran, and the girl I was with shouted to the referee that he was a fucking pigfooted Jap because he didn’t call a penalty on a particularly hard tackle. Beyond all this, I grew up in somewhat of a Korean househild, and as liberal and open minded as my father is (he will freely admit that he believes Dokdo belongs to Japan) [GASP, I know, right?],as much as he spoke with admiration of the “Land of the Rising Sun,” he still unknowingly exuded anti-Japanese sentiment from time to time.
All this, and most Koreans have never met a Japanese person in their entire life. I would say that it is fair to describe this hatred of Japan as irrational. Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of reasons that this sentiment exists. Japan as a nation has not done enough to atone for the 36 years that it held Korea as a colony, and did some terrible terrible things here. But the hatred should be directed at the Japanese government, not the average person. This is why I have misgivings about this film.
The reason why this film is so popular is because it’s a stroke of the Korean ego, with a huge dose of anti-Japanese flavor to boot. It feeds on this anti-Japanese sentiment, to draw the audience in.. and has the effect of feeding into it, in essence making people hate Japan even more on the way out.
As we stepped out of the theatre, you could hear people talking about Uri (us, Koreans) and Jotpali dul, Wonsungi dul, Ilbon nom dul (Pigfooted Japs, Monkeys, Japs) in their discussion of the film.
But certainly that can’t be the filmmakers’ fault right? They are trying to make a historical piece. Besides they are drumming up hatred for Imperial Japan, not Japan today!
See the picture next to this. It is from the filming, but shows the Japanese soldiers carrying around the Japanese flag of TODAY! The filmmakers want you to know that these are Japanese, so much that they are willing to eschew historical accuracy to put the hinomaru (the sun flag) into the army’s hands despite the fact that it wasn’t officially adopted as a national symbol until 1870, after the Meiji Restoration. Now there is evidence of sun-motif crests used during the warring states era of Japan for certain daimyo, but they have the mark of the Tokugawa shogunate there and the hinomaru, which are contradictions.
I may be in error on this point, but the only instance of a flag looking similar to that that I was able to find from that period was for a daimyo called Tozawa Masamori from Dewa Province. Dewa is in present day Yamagata and Akita in the Tohoku region of Japan (The Northeast part, just south of Hokkaido). It is also his personal flag, not a war flag for a common foot soldier as portrayed in this film. Plus he was born in 1585, which would make him 7 at the time of this film. I doubt he was involved. I can draw no other conclusion other than to assume that the filmmakers wanted imagery that says THIS IS JAPAN!
Nevermind the fact that Japan didn’t yet exist (and for that matter neither did Korea). And Joseon and the Tokugawa Shogunate had pretty decent relations except for this one spat… but no forget that Japan is evil! EVIL!
So I was really disappointed because I thought it was going to be a film that showed the motivations not only of the Korean side, but also the Japanese side, that would have real three dimensional characters and that I would come away with a new understanding of the battle. Look at some of those other films I mentioned. Starting with the Korean ones, Taegukki Brotherhood, while a tearjerker that is over sensationalized, actually has one of the protagonists fighting on the side of North Korea by film’s end. 71: Into the Fire also does not demonize the North Koreans, in fact casting a handsome looking guy as the Northern commander who only reluctantly decides to fight against a makeshift militia of high school kids. Looking at the western films, we continue to see more of this. Platoon and Full Metal Jacket aren’t feel good war movies and don’t make evil caricatures of the enemy soldiers fighting against the USMC in Vietnam. Saving Private Ryan is a very pro-American film, but similarly shows that the German soldiers aren’t raving monsters. When one of them is captured, he’s seen as alone and scared. And Inglourious Basterds…
Hey Wait a second, you’re going to complain about the use of the Hinomaru in Roaring Currents, but you like a film that shows Hitler dying in a theatre in France long before he actually died in real history?
Why do I feel a need to even address this question? You’re cherry picking things with my argument without listening to it as a whole. Inglourious Basterds is not a historical film. It is revenge fantasy. The ending caught me by surprise for sure, I kept thinking, wow, how is Hitler going to get out of this one? I mean, I know he will escape, because this isn’t how he died. Then suddenly, BOOM he’s dead. Wha?? Whaaaaaaa? That said, the film didn’t portray the Nazis as mindless evil robots like many other WWII films might. You could even argue that the breakout character in that film is Hans Landa, the multilingual German SS officer played by Christoph Waltz. Sure, Landa’s evil, but he’s evil in a likable way.
None of the villains in roaring currents seems to actually be human, and in the ending, when the antagonist is on Yi’s boat, he shouts Omae wa Chosenjin da! (You fucking Korean!) as he tries to kill the person who has betrayed him. He takes a lot of arrows but he’s still not falling down, he’s charging at Yi Sun-Shin with sword raised. This isn’t a human being, its a monster. So the good Admiral Yi slays the beast with one chop of his mighty sword, slicing his head cleanly off, leaving his body still standing.
My point is this film demonizes Japan and reinforces anti-Japanese feeling.
I would bet that if released in Japan it would flop terribly, and I don’t forsee that it will do well in its upcoming U.S. release.