Noryang: Deadly Sea Movie Review – Korean history tied to the Shogun era

Korean historical naval battle film bursting with national pride

Noryang: Deadly Sea is the third movie in a series exalting Korea’s most infamous military hero, Admiral Yi Sun-Sin. Taking place at the end of the 1500s, Korea, then known as Joseon (which encompassed both North and South Korea at that time), partners with the Ming Dynasty, as the Joseon Peninsula is a helpful barrier between Ming China and marauding Japan (known as Wa or Wae in China and Korea during that period). The Battle of Noryang was the final major sea battle during the Imjin War (1592-1598) and a distinguishing period for Yi.

While the film is about the battle, its compelling feature is the portrayal of Admiral Yi’s compassion and determination through the war. And because of that, the allegiance he earns from peers and soldiers alike, even that of a Japanese soldier who changes alliance, following Yi through the balance of the War.

Noryang: Deadly Sea begins toward the end of the war when Wae’s leader has called his forces home from his deathbed. Rather than appeal to Admiral Yi, a Wae envoy visits Admiral Chen Lin of Ming, to ask for assistance in escaping Yi’s blockade. They ask merely to hold back rather than join in as Wae slip out – which may include a tiny show of force to spare the pride of the departing Wae Admiral. Also it will save Chen Lin’s men in a war that’s already over.

They barter many ‘enemy’ heads plus some Joseonite loot to get them on their way home. Admiral Yi, with his network of spies, anticipates a move by Wae and receives confirmation of a conversation. Confronting Chen Lin, if he insists on letting them escape rather than surrender, Yi will end the alliance between them.

To avoid causing an unauthorized break, Chen Lin settles by agreeing to add to Yi’s numbers visually but not engaging to prevent losing more soldiers. Conversely, Yi does not believe Wae will leave quietly and wants to wipe them out to prevent future battles. He dedicates the maneuver to soldiers lost.

Knowing his enemy and that Admiral Konishi Yukinaga will request reinforcements, Yi plans to use home court advantage to trap the second force before it even arrives, using the dark, fog and a strait to confuse and defeat them. In cowboy terms, they intend to head them off at the pass.

Directed by Kim Han-min (War of the Arrows), who is also credited as a screenwriter on the trilogy, he won accolades for the first two films at home. The 152-minute runtime is led by Kim Yun-seok (The Happy Life, Escape from Mogadishu)​, as Admiral Yi Sun-Sin alongside a cast of familiar faces.

Baek Yoon-sik (Vagabond, Tazza: the High Rollers) plays Shimazu Yoshihiro, commander of the Japanese naval force that invades by night. Jung Jae-young (Castaway on the Moon, Carter) is Chen Lin, the Ming Dynasty navy admiral. Huh Joon-ho (Why Her?, Snowdrop ) is Deng Zilong, the Ming Dynasty vice admiral who sees eye-to-eye with Yi. Kim Seong-gyu (Kingdom, Pachinko S2) plays the heroic Junsa, the Japanese defector who joins Admiral Yi in his campaign. And Yeo Jin-goo (Hotel del Luna, Beyond Evil) makes an appearance as the Admiral’s deceased youngest son and star of many of Yi’s battle-fueled nightmares.

Kim Yun-seok as Admiral Yi Sun-Sin in Noryang: Deadly Sea

As it’s a sea battle, there’s not a lot of land-time and it’s plastered with multiple aerial views from ship alignment to shrapnel. But still, there’s enough storyline via the thinking and inner workings of all the leaders and their teams. When Chen Lin figures out its more than a small show on the Wae side, his Vice Admiral, Deng Zilong, dives in and he soon follows, helping Yi through a battle that takes place over the course of one night. 

Releasing in Korea in 2023, Noryang: Deadly Sea hasn’t sailed far from its shores until this week as the DVD drops in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and multiple European countries as well as via iTunes and VUDU in some markets. Even as a niche film (outside Korea), honestly, I’ve been waiting to see it with subtitles, having loved Admiral: Roaring Currents. While a full streaming schedule has not yet been confirmed, the hard copy includes bonus content with character histories. If you’re a Korean history buff, this may be tempting. 

The 2014 Admiral: Roaring Currents (Prime, iTUNES) was followed by Hansan: Rising Dragon (Tubi, Roku, Prime, Viki), a precursor to the time period and while interesting, didn’t pack quite as much of a punch. Admiral: Roaring Currents was recognized for having been shot on the water, while Hansan: Rising Dragon was done with CGI but I’m not sure it’s water scenes that topped my enjoyment. In the spirit of Star Wars, there’s a reason Kim selected that battle first – it’s David and Goliath central. 12 ships against 330. A hero story for sure. For Koreans, fighting spirit is key. Joseon’s tale – the little engine that could – is a lot like the South Korea we see today.

While Admiral: Roaring Currents received reproach at home for exaggerating history, Hansan: Rising Dragon was said to be more historically accurate. English-language newspaper, Korea JoongAng Daily, shares research on the historic detail covered in the films and drawings of Yi’s celebrated turtle ship in a story published at the release of Hansan: Rising Dragon in 2022. Real-life accuracy aside, there’s admiration for a leader like Yi who knew his battle field, using the seascape to trick and trap his opponents, no matter their proportions. 

According to Director Kim in an interview with Newsweek in 2022, “The three naval battles differ in their characteristics. The Battle of Hansan Island demonstrated Admiral Yi’s wisdom; the Battle of Myeongnyang demonstrated his courage; and the Battle of Noryang demonstrated his insight…capturing these three facets of his character was a great challenge and also an honor.”

Spelling it out for history nerds like me:

Trilogy

Time Period

Battle

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014)

1597

Battle of Myeongnyang Strait

Hansan: Rising Dragon (2022)

1592

Battle of Hansan Island

Noryang: Deadly Sea (2023)

1598

Battle of Noryang Strait

 

 

If you’re compelled by Shogun, we’re not that far apart as the series takes place around 1600. About when the Anjin was teaching the Japanese about sea cannon… So the time periods are lining up, even though it’s not a piece of the Shogun story and vice versa. However, in the first few minutes, you’ll meet Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the dying Taiko and Tokugawa Ieyasu, future Shogun and real-life version of Lord Yoshi Toranaga.

A major historic figure in Korea, today you can find Admiral Yi shining brightly on Sejongno Street, Gwanghwamun Plaza in Seoul among other locations. So absorbed in the research, Director Kim and several cast members, created a 2015 documentary following the path of Admiral Yi during the 16 days before the battle of Myeongnyang called Roaring Currents: The Road of the Admiral. It covers a time when Joseon was considering getting rid of the Navy. But Yi knew the sea was a barrier that could save the country. Find it on Roku, AppleTV, Prime and Tubi.

Still here? Check out our interview with Bae Han Sung to see what he says about his cameo as King Seonjo in Noryang: Deadly Sea in his exclusive interview.


Have you seen any of the trilogy? If so, we’d love to hear your thoughts below.

Check out our Noryang: Deadly Sea Ending Explained story or click to read Bae Han Sung’s interview, including thoughts on his role as King Seonjo in an exclusive interview.

 

READ MORE: Korean drama reviews and Korean movie reviews

 

6.5/10

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