Over the past 10 years, director Kim Han-min has been adapting the life of Joseon Admiral Yi Sun-shin and his fight against the Japanese invasions of Korea in the 1500s. This began with The Admiral: Roaring Currents in 2014, followed by Hansan: Rising Dragon in 2022. Now, it closes with Noryang: Deadly Sea.
The film continues the story of Yi Sun-shin (Kim Yoon-seok) and opens with the death of the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi as he calls for the removal of Japanese forces from Joseon. When Admiral Yi learns that the Japanese army is trying to hastily retreat after the death of Hideyoshi, he follows through on his plan to wipe out the Japanese fleet. Instead of allowing them to flee, Yi is steadfast in his belief that wiping out the Japanese fleet is the only way to stop them from returning. As such, Yi enters his last naval battle by creating a joint fleet with the Ming Dynasty to block the retreat route in the Noryang Strait.
With this premise alone, the last valiant battle seems simple. A two-on-one clash against a retreating force should be a simple victory. Instead, Chen Lin (Jeong Jae-yeong), the governor of the Ming Dynasty, tries to open a retreat route for the Japanese army while embedded in the Joseon fleet. It isn’t just one threat either. Shimazu (Baek Yoon-Seok), the head of the Japanese army, heads to Noryang to help the Japanese army retreat. The end of the seven-year Imjin War is close but substantially far away as Admiral Yi Sun-sin leads an allied fleet against the Wae army and pushes against the odds.
Noryang: Deadly Sea isn’t fast-paced or action-packed. Still, it is an epic that effortlessly carries the weight from the first two films well. Some may find themselves distracted and, at times, losing touch during the long sections of political dealing. However, if you let the lush costuming pull you in, you’ll see the slow build-up of Yi Sun-sin into a mythic figure. This is ultimately the goal of director Kim’s trilogy of films. They recount the battles and successes of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, but they also capture his unwavering belief in his country and, more importantly, his people.
At two-and-a-half hours, the film feels every minute of its runtime. That said, it fills every minute with political dynamics, social explorations, and, in its rousing action. At first, it feels as if the narrative is moving through quicksand. It creeps slowly, setting the stage for the final epic battle of Yi Sun-sin’s life. It is difficult to track the long history of Noryang: Deadly Sea. Every political development begins to fall into place once the battle begins. The slow moments are necessary to feel the impact of the battle and the choices made within it.
The battle of Noryang is directed beautifully. The audience never loses focus of the spectacle despite taking place at night. The darkness is a crucial element in building tension, but it never consumes the entire sequence. The sea battle set piece and the CGI used to recreate the epic battle is a stellar accomplishment but is to be expected after director Kim Han-min’s Hansan: Rising Dragon. Additionally, the sheer size of the battle and the length of time it takes up is extraordinary. This battle solidly lands the film in epic action territory, even with how slow it moves at first. This is only fitting given that the real-life battle resulted in the most deaths of any battle during the war.
Additionally, Noryang: Deadly Sea is also a period piece that plays extremely well for the war epic. The extensive attention to detail in the different costumes across the Japanese, Ming, and Joseon fleets is astounding. The variance in uniforms across each empire carries small details. Each one speaks as loudly as the different languages spoken across the film. Add in the differences based on the chain of command, and it’s all stellar.
At its core, Noryang: Deadly Sea embodies a war epic in absolutely every sense of the genre. When viewed with the rest of the trilogy, Kim Han-min has captured the mythic proportions of Yi Sun-sin’s naval prowess. This comes from the build-up in the narrative’s crawl but is sealed by actor Kim Yoon-seok’s performances as Yi Sun-sin. A dynamic actor, his performance carries the trilogy to a close beautifully.
Noryang: Deadly Sea is playing now in limited theatrical release.
Noryang: Deadly Sea
At its core, Noryang: Deadly Sea embodies a war epic in absolutely every sense of the genre. When viewed with the rest of the trilogy, Kim Han-min has captured the mythic proportions of Yi Sun-sin’s naval prowess.