NORYANG: DEADLY SEA Caps Off South Korea’s Epic Naval Warfare Trilogy

Noryang: Deadly Sea is the final installment of the epic The Admiral naval warfare series, directed by Kim Han-min and based on Admiral Yi Sun-sin and set in the 1590s.

The first film, The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014), was a roaring success, setting Korean box office and viewing records. More importantly – and this is a word we avoid around these parts – it was a masterpiece, translating naval strategy to the screen in a way that was understandable and extremely thrilling to watch, demonstrating how the execution of brilliant maneuvers won the day.

Noryang: Deadly Sea now closes the book on this epic saga, with Kim Yoon-seok in the role of Yi Sun-sin.

With its incredibly thrilling (and lengthy) depictions of naval battles, there’s little doubt that this trilogy is the standard for naval warfare movies, spotlighting a historic hero with great brilliance and courage.

The period covered in the films features one of the most famous and unique marvels of Korean history: the famous Turtle Ships of the Joseon Navy. The huge, armored ships, so-called for their appearance of a shell-like hardtop and dragon’s-head figurehead, were extremely effective in battle. Cinematically, they’re a blast to watch, smashing their way through enemy ships like waterborne battering rams.

While all three films are great, neither sequel quite reaches the lofty heights of the first film, which more effectively demonstrated naval strategy in a way that was incredibly riveting and satisfying. Furthermore, it was shot in more of a tactile in-camera reality, whereas its sequels use more CG and digital worldcraft and compositing.

By contrast, while Noryang features plenty of discussion of fluid strategies in shifting scenarios, its overall structure is less of a brilliantly executed campaign and more of a sustained clash of sheer tenacity and perseverance.

It’s a little hard to shake the disappointment that each of the films has a different actor playing Yi Sun-sin, slightly fracturing the illusion of continuity. I understand that choice for last year’s prequel Hansan: Rising Dragon, featuring a younger version of the character, but for the last outing it would have been great to see the great Choi Min-Sik make his return. Alas.

At 2.5 hours, Noryang is slightly longer than its precedessors, and has a somewhat laborious setup that can at times be hard to follow. I found it a struggle to keep track of the different Korean, Japanese, and Chinese characters and their place in the narrative (and I say that as someone who has a pretty good ear for differentiating these languages aurally).

But once the battle begins, almost exactly at the film’s halfway mark, you’ve put in the work and from there it’s the good stuff: sustained naval combat with dueling strategies, long distance and close-quarters fighting, epic heroics, and the unpredictability of a shaky alliance.

Noryang: Deadly Sea opened in Los Angeles on December 22 and expands to additional North American markets January 5.

— A/V Out

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