Saturday, January 06, 2024

Noryang : Deadly Sea.

So, I don't really think that the Causeway Street theater is going to continue to have this little Asian film corner for the long haul - screens 4 & 5 are probably just two of the smaller ones, and the times certainly line up so that Noryang and 12.12 could be splitting a screen - but maybe they do, depending how things shake out, especially since there seems to be less niche material playing theaters than there used to be.

I'm just glad it's nearby. For the first entry in this series, The Admiral: Roaring Currents(*), I had to go out to Revere, back when that was where Korean films tended to land, and it was a pain in the neck. The second, Hansan: Rising Dragon, played in Montreal as part of Fantasia last year. Getting on the Green Line Extension(**) is much, much easier!

(*) Don't click on the links for the full reviews, but copy the link and feed it into - or, for The Admiral, just use this link. eFilmCritic went down a couple years ago, after having been running on auto for a while, and eventually the domain registration lapsed and some squatter decided to buy it and redirect it to garbage. Someday, I'll go through this entire blog and replace all the links of that sort, but it's a daunting task for something that's not a business.

(**) Have we stopped calling in the "Green Line Extension" yet? It probably should just be the Green or E line, but I heard GLX for so long…

Noryang (Deadly Sea)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 January 2024 in AMC Causeway #5 (first-run, DCP)

Idle question: Was Kim Han-nim a big naval history nerd before making these movies, or is he as a result? Not that it truly matters - they're the same sort of loving recreation dedicated more to tactics than themes either way - but this one seems as much the product of a personal desire to complete the set as continuing a hit series, like the studio didn't mind doing a sequel but wasn't going overboard. It's the third actor playing Admiral Yi in as many films, each a little bit of a step down, and the visual effects budget is stretched just a bit thinner.

This one takes place in 1598, about a year after Roaring Currents (Rising Dragon was a prequel), and the Japanese invasion of Joseon has been almost completely repelled with the aid of the Chinese Mings, who knew Japan was aiming to use the Korean peninsula as a staging area to continue north. Admiral Yi Sun-sin (Kim Yun-seok) continues to blockage a Japanese garrison in concert with Chinese Admiral Chen Lin (Jung Jae-young), even as its commander, Konishi (Lee Mu-saeng) attempts to negotiate a path to retreat, eager to return home and gain favor with the new regent before a rival. Yi is unwilling, perhaps wishing to avenge his murdered son Myeon (Yeo Jin-goo), so Konishi eventually hatches a plan with Japanese admiral Shimazu (Baek Yoon-sik) to draw Yi away from his blockade - and, if all goes well, kill or disgrace Yi because they fear he might eventually mount an invasion of the home islands.

It's an intriguing motivation, although it highlights something that has always been a bit on an issue with this series: Yi being so capable, respected by his men, and dedicated to defending his homeland, while the Japanese are jockeying for advantage and the Joseon leadership worries about their own comfort, that it's often the villains or the exploits of Yi's spy network (not a factor in this film) that are most captivating, at least until the battle approaches. That means Kim Yun-seok is the third actor in as many films charged with playing Yi as a stoic, modest genius, his most outwardly emotional moment comes in an early dream of witnessing Hyeon's murder. He is seldom given someone to truly clash with; Jung Jae-young gets to be more colorful as the mildly-corrupt Chinese admiral who often seems frustrated by Yi, seeing him as a big fish in a small pond compared to the Mings he serves, but his scenes with Kim are somewhat muted: The two communicate either through translators or by writing their words on the table between them, which does a nice job of highlighting the strain of their position even as it often tamps the emotions down. Baek Yoon-sik's Shimazu is the opposing strategist with a grudging respect, but he never seems to be quite on Yi's level and Baek and Kim never get to play against each other directly.

Director Kim and his writer seemingly have difficulty placing this battle in its context, or perhaps more accurately, making that context intriguing enough that the battle seems like its culmination. The film starts with a scene in Japan - a feudal lord wheezing as death robs him of his dignity as it does everyone, no matter how golden the bedchamber or fine the silks in it - that is potentially interesting foreshadowing, especially if one recalls how Yi had no intention of dying on dry land back in Raging Currents, but also sets up storylines that are barely acknowledged later. Scenes of the governmental councils or conferring generals dutifully label each historic figure who speaks, but don't create conflicts between interests and points of view the way that they might. There's exactly enough to get the audience to the Noryang strait, but not to create the feeling that history could pivot on the outcome.

Still, he's undeniably in touch with what the audience comes to these movies to see: Giant wooden warships exchanging cannon fire, the battles occasionally augmented by the products of Korean ingenuity that functioned as superweapons in 16th Century Asia, especially the "turtle ships" (waterborne tanks that simply ram their way through opposing ships) that are arguably the breakout star of the series. As he has before, Kim takes these enormously-scaled battles - possibly a thousand ships all told - and makes the layout of everything clear while punctuating knowing full well that the audience is really going to get into those moments, a few seconds after a row of cannons kick back in sequence when multiple explosions him enemy ships simultaneously. The effects budget might be a little tight, with the overhead feeling a bit like a tactics-oriented war game and the staging having a bit more of a digital feel, especially compared to the first where the filmmakers had eight or so ships built.. Get close to sea level, and it's the best kind of cinematic action. And, it comes in large portions - this is a long movie but it seems like the entire second half is one big battle.

It's a lot, and it kind of flags toward the end for a number of reasons: There's a lot of talk about Konishi's fleet joining the battle but not a lot of action with it, trouble switching scales as folks board enemy ships, and a drawn-out conclusion where a steady drumbeat just highlights length rather than maintaining a pace. Thrills become solemnity, just as the audience might be getting ready to go, and then a post-credit scene seems to do little but reiterate the solemn appreciation of Yi's contribution, although maybe folks who know their Korean history can tell me that Kim is teasing something exciting.

Noryang: Deadly Sea is perhaps just a notch below the other two films in the series, although there's a point of view where that's an unfair assessment: It delivers the grand battle the audience is paying for on the big screen (and based on the premium formats listed in the credits, this could be a whole lot of fun in the South Korean 270-degree ScreenX format) with less to distract from that spectacle. It delivers what it promises, and what it promises is one of the best things this sort of movie can do.

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