Roaring Currents (2014) Review: Overhyped Highest Grossing Korean Movie Ever!

Roaring Currents (2014) Review: Overhyped Highest Grossing Korean Movie Ever!

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This is Prof. Akia and welcome to my look back at the Korea movies of 2014. For the first review, I’m tackling the highest grossing Korean movie up to this point. This is the review of “Roaring Currents” (2014). It opened on the 30th of July 2014 and sold 17,613,682 tickets in total. Considering that the total population of Korea is 50.22 million, you could say that about half of the above 15 years old and below 70 populations saw this movie.

Before going into the movie in detail, I am doing a new thing and examining how friendly this movie is for foreigner. Korean movies tend to be sloppy in conveying enough information regarding the setup of the story it is telling even for a Korean. They rely too much on preexisting cultural knowledge. This becomes more of an issue for foreigners who do not have this cultural knowledge.

In the case of “Roaring Currents” (2014), it is a rather mixed bag. It assumes that you already know the characters and historical context portrayed in this movie. It does not do any of the work setting up the story. This is a serious issue since the story is based on historical events.

On the other hand, the actual plot is very broad to the degree that it almost dips into what would be considered historical fantasy. Thus, if you ignore all the serious stuff like character motivation, it becomes watchable when stuff starts to blow up.

Thus, for foreigners, it may be better to cut out about 20 minutes in the first half of the movie since you will basically not know what is going in.  

I have gotten that stuff out of the way!
So, the plot!

The Plot
This movie is based on the historical events which occurred in 1597 A.D. during the Korean-Japanese war. And I am using “based on” with quotation marks!

Yi Sun-Shin

According to history, you have the famous Joseon Admiral Yi Sun-Shin put in a dire situation as his fleet is seriously outnumbered by the Japanese navy. The Korean navy is in tattered and disheartened by the previous defeats in which they lost most of their fleet. Now they are just huddled in their port waiting for the Japanese navy to come out and challenge them. It is Admiral Yi Sun-Shin’s  job to come in and rescue them from the mess they got themselves into.

The movie’s story is essentially structured as a siege movie at its core even though there is no actual wall surrounding them.

There are only the salty waters of the ocean and the wooden walls made up by the Japanese navy.

You have a beleaguered small force manning an important military position being confronted by an overwhelming force. Thus, it is the job of the commander to get the iron in the veins of his soldiers boiling.

Of course, you need a motivational speech.
It is that kind of movie!

However, “Roaring Currents” (2014) is not about the ultimate/beautiful sacrifice of soldiers like with the battle of Thermopylae featured in the movie “300” (2007). It is not even contemplating mortality and the cost of was like the battle of Iwo Jima featured in “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006).

Rather, it is more like Battle of Agincourt featured in “Henry V” (1989). It is about an underdog small force beating a bigger force because of various reasons including the abilities of the commanding officer.  It is ultimately about bragging rights!

The movies listed above are far better movies than “Roaring Currents” (2014)

Thus the movie’s first act starts with the Korean navy down on their luck and mumbling about their fates. The second act has everyone shouting out “doom is near” and Joseon Admiral Yi Sun-Shin trying to keep his forces together while developing a strategy that would help him wrench victory out from an apparent defeat. The third acts starts with a motivational speech like all of these movies do and then we have ships battling out in the waters un-intelligibility.

Insert 30 minutes of fictional action to make up for the lack of drama.

The movie ends with a victory. And the movie literally just ends!

What is Wrong?
Up till now, you may have gotten a hint about how I feel about this movie. This movie is not great! It is not terrible but overall it does not stand up to all the hype this movie had.

What do I mean?

While the directing of “Roaring Currents” (2014) is neither inspired nor very creative, it is at least competent. The camera does not move frantically when there is no reason for it. You could understand what is happening visually although the same cannot always be said story wise.

In a way, the movie seems to be directed very classically.

While the action scenes get repetitive fast and feel circa 1990s in its style, they do the basic job of exploding stuff right. The acting is not terrible but, at the time same time, most feel replaceable and this includes the lead’s performance. Not particularly a fan of the lead actor but I have seen him doing much better work.

The important centerpiece motivational speech in front of the troops before they head straight into their destinies is just lackluster. Part of this is the actor’s delivery. The other part is that the speech is not written well.  It is not the “St Crispin's Day Speech” by William Shakespeare!

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

However, you have to give the actors some slack because they have not much to work with.

These are some of the reasons I say that the movie is not terrible!

The key problem with this movie lies with the screenplay.

It is simply not good!

What does the movie actually want to say?
For one thing, I do not know what “Roaring Currents” (2014) wants to do other than showing off okay explosions, smearing the Japanese as barbarians, and wagging the Korean tribalism flag.

I do not really like to use the word nationalism for Korea.
Nationalism is too advance a concept for Korea!

While some movies can sustain themselves with only those superficial elements, “Roaring Currents” (2014) takes itself too seriously for that to be possible. If a movie takes that attitude, it has to have more of a story it wants to tell.

Is “Roaring Currents” (2014) interested in Admiral Yi Sun-Shin as a person? I would have to say no. If I did not have any information about Yi Sun-Shin prior to seeing this movie from my history lessons and other Korean media products, I would barely grasp who he was and what he means to the Korean cultural consciousness.

Other than some PTSD scenes, there is barely any character development for him or even any back story in the movie. If you look at his story closely, he does not even have a character arc. He is basically the same person before and after the movie.

Is the movie interested in this battle within a historical context? There have been many movies about a single important point in time. The central battle in “Roaring Currents” (2014) could definitely qualify for that type of event.

Like the battle of Thermopylae!

However, “Roaring Currents” (2014) is not that interested in this aspect. The movie provides almost no context to the war other than a text scrolling exposition scene or two.

Thor: The Dark World (2013) had more exposition!

In addition, this movie is so fictionalized that you could call it the fantasy version of the real historical events.

What does this movie want to do?

I feel that this movie meanders between these two examples of what could be done with this story in a movie. It does not want to be totally about the life or character of  Admiral Yi Sun-Shin. At the same time, it is not particularly interested in the historical aspect to the story.

Thus, the movie made a compromise

The Compromise
The result of this compromise is weird. If you think about it, where this movie is situated in the series of events surrounding either the war or the life and career of Admiral Yi Sun-Shin is odd.

If you consider the span of character’s journey, “Roaring Currents” (2014) is essentially the middle part of a trilogy but without the first movie being made. In other words, it is like starting with “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (2002) without making “The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001).

What does this mean?

With this type of trilogy movie, the character development is not concise and meant to span multiple movies. Thus, without the previous movie, there is no chance to be invested in the character if you are not predisposed in that manner going in to the movie.


And it is not like the character of Admiral Yi Sun-Shin is a simplistic character to the degree that you can condense him down to a few character features. He was not just the right person at the right place. Rather everything he went through had led him up to this battle. He was the culmination of all his past battles with foes and friends alike.  “Roaring Currents” (2014) essentially assumed that you know all about this and thus does not put in the effort in developing the character.

This is a shame.
And this does not differ with the other supporting characters.

The result of this treatment of characters is that no one is memorable beyond their most superficial elements. I could only point out a few characters from this movie immediately after watching the movie. And this can be done only by referencing their story function or weird costumes.

Weird costumed “Darth Vader” standin Japanese bad guy!
What is with that guy?

Compared to “Roaring Currents” (2014), I can recall most of the characters from “Pearl Harbor” (2001) clearly even though I haven’t seen that movie in almost a decade. Also, that movie was not great also.

“The Patriot” (2000)

Even Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot” (2000) had better character development!

This lack of interesting elements makes the movie rely too much on the action scenes which are located mostly in the last 30 minutes of the movie or so. This means that there is not much happening in the first half of the movie. The screenplay inserts some lack luster comic book like subplots that are not interesting and go nowhere to fill the space.

Once again, why does this movie need a masked “Darth Vador” like villain whose only motivation is revenge?  

The result of all this is a screenplay that feels pointless and generic that wears its many cinematic influences on its sleeves. Even compared to comic book movies such as “300” (2007), the screenplay of “Roaring Currents” (2014) is poor.

The phenomenon
So, why did this movie become a huge phenomenon in Korea? Well, it is not because it is a Great War movie objectively in terms of either conveying the human condition during war or in terms of historical accuracy. It is not even the best made Korean mainstream popcorn movie ever!

Strictly speaking in terms of the movie, it helps that the movie is a fantasy in many ways. The bulk of the actual war scenes did not occur in this movie’s manner. But this does not explain this movie becoming the huge phenomenon it has become.

Why did this movie?

It is not a total surprise since “Roaring Currents” (2014) is nothing if not formulaic.  First, bashing the Japanese is always a crowd pleaser. And when this movie opened, there was a huge wave of anti-Japanese sentiment sweeping Korea at the time.

Second, Koreans have a lot of insecurities regarding its post- ancient history. This is especially true in regard to martial prowess. Not only is the battle in “Roaring Currents” (2014) a famous one but it is basically one of the two battles that most Koreans can even recall as a victory from the last 500 years or so. And this one actually has the regular forces winning a straight out war defining victory in the veins of “Battle of Salamis”.

So, you can imagine why Koreans would hang on to this battle emotionally. In a way, it is far more emotionally relevant to Koreans than what the battle of Gettysburg means to an American.

What is interesting is that not many people understand what actually happened.
We only remembered the 2 minute elevator pitch version of it.

As a result, you can get the above 40s crowd who watch only 1 or 2 movies a year out of their homes for 2 hours on a weekend. It also helps that these people do not have as high standards as more frequent movie goers like myself.

This means money!

Add in some navel based action scenes which are rather rare in Korean movies, you have not only a hit but also a mega-hit. The studio knew this since it put in about $17 million into production costs alone which is like a $170 million Hollywood movie in terms of the Korean box office.

In terms of being a movie, “Roaring Currents” (2014) is rather dull for most of its 128 min until the last action filled act. Except for some unnecessary subplots and rather stitched together infighting on the part of the Japanese, there is basically no real plot.

Even when the action starts happening, the actual strategy that is meant to have won this miracle of a battle in the vein of Trafalgar or the battle with Spanish armada is rather muddled and not well portrayed. There is just a mess of ships charging and guns firing further than they could in real life during the time period.

This is rather a shame since the battle of Myeongnyang central to this movie is rather interesting. In a lot of ways, it can be seen as the naval version of the battle of Thermopylae. Admiral Yi Sun-Shin selected a location which acted like a bottleneck which reduced the enemy’s numeric advantage.  He then defended that location with fewer ships than the enemy but the quality of the ships were far superior than the Japanese. This is what King Leonidas of Sparta did. In fact, Admiral Yi Sun-Shin had better odds than King Leonidas of Sparta because of the nature of naval battles and difference between forces were far less drastic. 

In any case, “Roaring Currents” (2014) is not the best movie to get into Korean movies for foreigners. It is not that great of a movie and it is bad at providing exposition that you do require to follow the movie.

 While I’ll actually watch Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot” (2000) again if I catch in on cable one rainy and cold night, I’ll just go read a book if “Roaring Currents” (2014) is on. I give it a C+.

As a side note: the critical response regarding this movie even in Korea is not great. Even the audience response is mixed.
At the present, You can get the movie over streaming sites. However, the home video versions have not been released at the moment. 

Score: C+ or 5.25/10

Other Reviews you may enjoy!

Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island (2015) [Link]

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