From character actor to leading man, Kim Yoon-seok discusses playing nation’s naval hero

December 20, 2023

In the epic historical film “Noryang: Dealy Sea,” Kim Yoon-seok expresses legendary admiral Yi Sun-sin’s indomitable spirit to annihilate the enemy with minimal dialogue.

“Admiral Yi is a man of few words. He never shows his emotions. I agonized over how to perform the character,” the actor said during an interview with local reporters in Seoul on Wednesday.

“In scene after scene, there is a sense of resolute determination,” he said of the challenges of portraying Yi’s unwavering resolve on the set.

His lines are few and far between, but they speak a thousand words — in the actor’s chameleon-like performance where he completely immerses himself in the role.

“Noryang: Deadly Sea,” which was released in movie theaters Wednesday, is director Kim Han-min’s final installment of his trilogy about Yi, South Korea’s legendary naval admiral. The 2.5-hour epic film recounts Asia’s deadliest naval warfare that finally ended the Imjin War, or the Japanese invasion of Korea (1592-98).

Despite the suggestion from the allied force of the Ming Dynasty to let go of the retreating enemy, Yi strongly disagrees, insisting ending the war “in the right way” would set the path for the nation and teach the enemy a lesson that reckless invasions cost it dearly.

The conflict that was meant to conclude the seven-year war flared up in the most dramatic — and deadly — way. More soldiers died in the Battle of Noryang, which took place on Dec. 16, 1598, and lasted until dawn the next day, than in any other battle of the war.

At the height of the battle, Yi falls to his knees, struck by a bullet on his left shoulder. He is hurriedly carried to his cabin but dies there after uttering his last words, “Do not announce my death,” to keep morale high.

“When I shot the scene, I did not see it as the death of a great admiral. Rather it was the death of a man in his 50s. He was just a human being after all,” Kim said, adding he and the director did not want to over-dramatize Yi’s death.

The actor recalled a text message he received from an acquaintance of his, expressing a sense of relief that the admiral would finally get to rest in peace.

“I think the audience will sympathize more with the way we portray his death,” the actor said.

When the monthslong shooting was finally over, the actor said he felt as if a heavy burden was lifted off his mind.

“I was so light-hearted. I was absolutely worn out after performing for months in make-up and heavy armor costumes. As fierce as the shooting had been, I instantly let go (of all the pressures).”

Honing his acting skills in theater for years, the 56-year-old actor has built a diversified career over the years across platforms, from plays to movies to television. He captivated the audience by playing a retired-cop-turned-pimp in the 2008 thriller “The Chaser” by Na Hong-jin, a critical and commercial hit. Since the success of the film, he has fast become one of the key and most prolific players in the South Korean movie scene.

While not traditionally handsome, he is relied upon for his ability to pull off compelling and engaging performances in most roles he plays.

For the audience, he said, “I would like you to remember that a new beginning needs the right ending. I don’t want you to forget it.”