J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Pirates: Joseon High Seas Intrigue

Why would a Korean Long John Silver start hunting Moby Dick during the early days of the Joseon Era? Captain So-ma has his reasons, including money, power, and revenge. He is not the only pirate hunting the whale that swallowed the Emperor’s new royal seal. His former first mate and a bandit nursing his own grudge get in on the chase in Lee Seok-hoon’s The Pirates (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Ming Emperor has given his blessing to Yi Seong-gye’s rebooted Joseon Dynasty, as well its new name and seal. Unfortunately, when the ship carrying Yi’s emissaries back from China encountered a great mother whale and her baby, they arrogantly attacked. The new name and the ambassadors would make it back to the Imperial court, but the seal would not, having been engulfed like Jonah.

The ambassadors blame pirates and stall for time, recruiting the treasonous officer Mo Hong-gab to do all the dirty work necessary. Mo forces freshly minted pirate captain Yeo-wol to hunt down the whale, despite her misgivings. Yet, he immediately double crosses her with the So-ma, whom she recently deposed. Further complicating matters, landlubbing soldier turned bandit Jang “Crazy Tiger” Sa-jung also pursues the marked whale for mercenary reasons. However, things get personal for Jang when he encounters his old enemy, Mo (he happens to be the only one with an eye-patch, thanks to Jang).

Naval action historicals have been ruling the Korean box office in recent months, with both Pirates and The Admiral: Roaring Currents racking up over five million ticket sales, which is a significant milestone in that market. While The Admiral plays it scrupulously straight, Pirates allows for far too much mugging from pirate-deserter Chul-bong and the bandit monk. Frankly, even Jang acts strangely schticky for a fugitive-patriot with a history of showing up disloyalty.

However, when the film is aboard Yeo-wol’s ship, it is (ironically) on solid ground. There is no joking around with her. Honor and brotherhood mean something to Yeo-wol and her faithful followers. As the new captain, Son Ye-jin exhibits solid action chops and a smoldering presence, bringing to mind her dazzling work in Open City.

Likewise, Lee Kyoung-young is great fun to watch chewing the scenery as her mentor and nemesis. Kim Tae-woo also makes an effective villain, opting for an icier, menacing approach for Mo. The one-named K-pop star Sulli brings some charismatic earnestness to the proceedings as Yeo-wol’s protégé, but there is just too much of the rubber-faced Yu Hae-jin and his fellow goofy land bandits.

Call it the curse of Jack Sparrow. When making a film about pirates, comic relief seems like an essential ingredient, but what we really want are more heroic women action figures, exactly like Yeo-wol. (Let’s forget about Cutthroat Island—please). Although it is more than two hours before the closing credits roll, Lee keeps it moving along rather briskly. He stages some suitably swashbuckling action spectacles and cinematographer Kim Young-ho’s underwater scenes are impressive. Recommended for fans of Son and high seas adventure, The Pirates opens this Friday (9/12) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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