What Does “The Admiral” Tell Us About Our Generation?

After viewing the most-watched Korean movie of all time, something struck me about our generation, both Christian and non-Christian, that I believe should not be overlooked. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Koreans began to show great enthusiasm towards movies that feature a hero that goes against the system and sacrifices for the good of the weak. Films like “The Admiral” or “The Attorney” all feature figures that are Christ-like in a sense. However, what is evident about the demand for films that feature such charismatic “heroes” is that our current society lacks these kinds of leaders altogether. Who would be willing to give up his life for the survival of numerous others and who is brave enough to stand firm in his beliefs with the whole world against him? What is even more serious is the fact that though our generation so greatly desires such a leader figure, no one is willing to become that leader himself.

The Admiral Official Poster
(Photo : Big Stone Pictures)
The Admiral Official Poster

“The Admiral”, directed by Han-Min Kim and produced by BigStone Pictures, features the feats of Admiral Yi Soon-shin in the battle of Myeongryang in 1598. The story of Admiral Yi defeating a Japanese fleet of 300 vessels with only 12 warships is something that every Korean hears growing up. The Korean history text book and hypes by elders made Yi into a demigod-like figure. The film version of the story however, reveals a much more human side of the naval commander. My take on this was that anyone, if he makes up his mind, could be like Admiral Yi.

The film starts with the Chosun (the last Korean dynasty) navy left with only 12 warships and about to go up against the Japanese fleet. Admiral Yi is constantly attacked by his generals and the king to disband the navy. With the Japanese constantly looking for the opportune moment to strike, Korean soldiers defect, try to assassinate the commander and even burn down one of their precious remaining ships.

When by himself, the admiral is presented like any other human being. He drinks alcohol with his son to forget his sorrows and falls into despair when he sees his ship burn. There is a moment when the admiral considers suicide. However, he brings up the courage to lead his men into battle.

No war historian was ever able to fully explain how Admiral Yi had overcome such harsh circumstances in the Battle of Myeongryang. Though the individual Korean naval ships were much larger, and possessed far superior fire power compared to the small Japanese vessels, it is hard to fathom how one could defeat 300 of those with only 12 of their own. There is one important factor in the battle that the film lightly touched upon that many audiences tend to forget.

When the Korean ships were stuck in a whirlpool, fishing men came to the aid of the navy and pulled the warships out with ropes and hooks. At the end of the movie, Admiral Yi calls this “grace from heaven”, expressing amazement and disbelief that the common people thought to help them. Though this scene was fictional, according to historical documents including Yi’s personal journal, there are records that over 100 fishing boats were deployed a distance behind the Korean warships, so it would look like the Koreans actually had much more ships.

The filmmakers wanted to show the audience that a hero or great leader cannot stand alone, but requires the help of those he leads. Yi himself tells his son Hoi, “Loyalty should be directed to the nation, and a nation cannot exist without its people”. In a way the film emphasized very Christian qualities that are often sought in good leaders; a believer should focus his attention and love on God and his brothers and sisters in Christ. Many Christian leaders also emphasize the importance of humility; leaving the results to God and trying not to do things by his own abilities.

At the end of the screening, many members of the audience stood up and applauded with approval. Some Korean-American viewers went far as to state that “I’ve never been so proud to be a Korean”. The qualities of the legendary naval commander were enough to move any film fan’s heart.

Many film experts expressed that the reason Koreans, particularly those who grew up in Korea all their lives, loved “The Admiral” so much because they had lost faith in their nation and their leaders. In light of recent events that have been happening in Korea such as the sinking of the Sewol ferry, the death of Private Yoon gave a strong impression for Korean citizens that the government is so incapable of even the most elementary tasks of a democratic nation, and President Geon-hye Park has become target of great criticism.

Koreans think back to the times of Admiral Yi, and King Sejong who invented the Korean alphabet. There have not been any political leaders that resemble these great historical figures and there is a strange pleasure and satisfaction in watching Admiral Yi not only defeat the foreign enemy but even “politely” disobey direct orders from the king to disband the navy and proving him wrong by emerging victorious from battle. History tells us that the people of the southern provinces of Chosun Dynasty, which Admiral Yi was placed in charge of both politically and militarily, desired the naval commander to take the throne after the war.

Everyone seems to agree that Admiral Yi is an amazing leader and greatly desire for such a figure to arise and to lead them into victory against a common enemy. However we live in an age where teenagers would rather watch play-through videos on YouTube than play the actual video game. This is true for Christians also. Everyone thinks that Jesus dying for our sins is amazing. Everyone agrees that non-believers should know about the Gospel. My question is, how many of us truly wish to be like Admiral Yi or Christ himself?

The Bible explicitly tells believers to endeavor to be just like Christ. Christians of the 21st century however prefer to just go to church on Sundays and even that is enough. Unless someone takes a small step of faith, Korea will never see the next Admiral Yi Soon-shin.

The film, “The Admiral” tells us that we do not have to be afraid of being alone. Admiral Yi had his people to rescue him, but Christians have God always behind our backs. Yi tells his men before going into battle that “the courage of one man can set an enemy of thousands trembling in fear”. Likewise the Bible tells us that faith the size of a mustard seed could move mountains.

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