The popularity of “Roaring Currents,” a period movie on Admiral Yi Sun-sin’s (1545-1598) great victory over a much larger Japanese invading fleet in 1597, continues its sweeping upturn. The film broke another box-office record on Sunday, passing the 10 million viewer mark at the fastest pace for a flick screened in Korea, a nation of about 50 million people. It took just 12 days from its premiere to pass the milestone and the number of movie goers is still rising.
At first, few expected the movie to stir such a sensation. Adm. Yi is a hero too well known to arouse interest. From small children to grown-ups, every Korean knows the historic Battle of Myeongnyang, in which his 12 warships destroyed 133 Japanese battleships in the strait off the southwestern island of Jindo by taking advantage of the rapid currents there.
Though the plot is far from original, “Roaring Currents” has become a smash hit, causing a nationwide fever to look again at arguably the most revered hero in Korean history. Books on Adm. Yi have occupied prominent spots in bookstores and tourists are flocking to historic sites related to his battles. He fought 23 naval battles against Japan and won them all.
Of course, great cinematic elements captivate the audience, such as the suspense in battle scenes, gratification from the victory and Choi Min-sik’s enthusiastic acting as Adm. Yi. But the real momentum behind its explosive popularity comes from outside the movie. “Roaring Currents” matches the public’s longing for an incorruptible and devoted leader like Adm. Yi, who they rarely find these days.
This craving is traceable to the sinking of the Sewol ferry off Jindo Island in April. Oddly enough, the sites of the sinking and the battle are not far apart. The accident that left about 300 dead and 10 still missing devastated the nation as it exposed the incompetence of the government both in prevention and rescue.
The Sewol incident prompted President Park Geun-hye to vow to sweep away deep-rooted evil in laws and systems and “remodel the nation.” While she’s set to push wide-ranging reform, gruesome news on belatedly disclosed deadly abuse in the military stunned the country again, revealing evils existing in the military. The awful incident of Pfc. Yoon being beaten to death by senior soldiers has multiplied the public’s distrust in the brass. The Yoon case may have been the latest dot connecting to the public’s longing to see the upright commander who shared his fate with his subordinates on the big screen.
President Park watched “Roaring Currents” in a Yeouido theater on Aug. 6 together with her secretaries. Cheong Wa Dae said they watched it to learn about Adm. Yi’s leadership and gain insight into a leadership that can lift the nation from its slump.
In the movie, Adm. Yi says, “Generally speaking, faithfulness of a commander should follow loyalty, and loyalty should be oriented to the people, not to their king.”
As his leadership put the people first, so should President Park stand by the people, not by those with vested interests who are above the people, and defeat evil such as incompetent bureaucracy, cozy ties between the government and industry, and greedy practices by the rich.
Adm. Yi says to his men who are scared to death before going out to sea to fight a bigger fleet of Japanese warships: “Those willing to die will live, and those willing to live will die.”
In 2014, a battle against deep-rooted evils may be like confronting a gargantuan enemy. President Park should fight resolutely to win the battle and never give up. Adm. Yi writes a letter to the king, who asks him to stop the naval fights and join battles on the mainland, as follows: “Twelve warships are still left to me.”
Though a commercial period film doesn’t reflect the current reality, Cheong Wa Dae should read the mind of the people who seek solace from Adm. Yi and learn the essence of his leadership.
By Chun Sung-woo
Chun Sung-woo is the lifestyle desk editor at The Korea Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com. ― Ed.