Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Pirates (해적: 바다로 간 산적) (2014)

Directed by: Lee Seok-hoon
Runtime: 2hrs 10mins
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3/5*

South Korean filmmakers have produced quite a few internationally successful big budget films. The very successful 2003 film "Oldboy" even inspired an (unnecessary) American remake. However, Pirates is a film very obviously inspired by the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, as well as countless other famous fictions. There are many moving parts here so let me see if I can pare this down:

Much like POTC, the story here involves a large ensemble cast with a couple of primary leads and villains. Jang Sa-jung (Nam-gil Kim) leaves his life as a member of the royal guard to build his own community of bandits in the forest near the mountains. Before he leaves though he burns all his bridges, in an opening fight sequence heavy on slow-motion. By fighting his captain and leaving him near death he also ensures that he'll have a nemesis to battle later on in the film.


Yeo-wol (Ye-jin Son) is second in command aboard a pirate ship who's captain has them at the breaking point. The problem being, the captain accepted a commission to be a privateer in service of a King the crew doesn't support. Worse yet, the captain and a collection of royal guard mistreat their lowly pirate crew, who they use to serve their own selfish goals. When mutiny becomes necessary Yeo-wol (Ye-jin Son) fights and disarms the captain leaving him to their equivalent of walking the plank. However, he survives the drop into the sea so he can show up later to battle as her nemesis. And these two nemeses join forces prompting cooperation between Jang Sa-jung and Yeo-wol.

A pirate who gets seasick isn't cutout to be a pirate.
The comic relief character Chul-bong (Hae-jin Yoo) is our bridge from the pirates out at sea to the bandits failing to survive the wilderness. He's too seasick to be a pirate so he takes up with the bandits where he doesn't quite fit in either. When word spreads that a giant whale brought down a royal ship carrying the King's seal, all these different groups of good and evil converge while attempting to hunt the whale hoping to find the seal in its belly.

In the same way "Pirates of the Caribbean" is an interesting mixture of many elements of fictional lore and a few bits of factual history, Lee Seok-hoon's "The Pirates" mixes up a concoction of both fictional, romanticized piracy/banditry and history. Jang Sa-jung's (Nam-gil Kim) woodland bandits are reminiscent of another famous band of merry men, even if he doesn't share much in common with the honorable Robin Hood. The relentless search for a destructive giant whale brings Captain Ahab to mind. And of course there is piracy and martial arts aspects of the film.

May as well be named Jack Sparrow
Jang Sa-jung is this film's Jack Sparrow character. He is that mixture of comedic incompetence and pure luck, who needs his loyal men, but would be the first to run away to save his own skin when the situation gets desperate. Yeo-wol, on the other hand, is the strongest member of the story. Factually it wasn't out of the ordinary for women to serve aboard pirate ships and even become leaders among cutthroats. In some strange sort of way a pirate ship was a progressive thing slightly ahead of its time, in terms of their ideals and system of leadership (they were also murderous thieves that mostly lived short painful lives, but nevermind that for now). In a time where showing strong women in TV and film is both popular and necessary, Pirate films such as this have both a sense of historical accuracy and cultural timeliness. It's just a shame that it comes at the expense of a strong, honorable male character.

The way all these elements come crashing together is all a bit too predictable. The CGI leaves a lot to be desired, and some of the things that happen are simply all too contrived. But sometimes knowing what you're in for can make all the difference in your experience with a film. Lee Seok-hoon's "The Pirates" is a fun, enjoyable, even goofy fantasy that asks quite a bit of our suspension of disbelief. But considering the films, and other sources of fiction that inspired it, we should know to expect all this. It delivers a fun action, adventure comedy every bit as good and bad (and sometimes over the top) as the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films that inspired it.