Lee Seok-hoon’s THE PIRATES arrives in the US already a huge box office hit in its native South Korea. The high sea adventure comedy follows several groups searching for a royal seal that has been unfortunately ingested by giant whale. At the center of the film is Yeo-wol, the female captain of the most successful band of pirates on the sea. After leading a successful mutiny years ago, her men have unwavering loyalty to her even if she constantly has to prove her worth to outsiders. She has a special relationship with the whale and finds herself conflicted about hunting down this so-called ‘God of the Sea.’ Also in search of the prize is bandit Jang Sa-jung, a man with high ideals who abandoned his post in the military when he felt his general (now the dictator of their land) was not acting honorably. Unfortunately for Sa-jung, he knows nothing about the seas, or hunting or whales, so his pursuit plays out far more comically than the real pirates. Also in the mix are Sa-jung’s former captain in the army, leading the governmental pursuit for the whale, and Yeo-wol’s old Pirate captain, who has built a new ship and vows revenge. They all come crashing together near the end in glorious combat.
Son Ye-jin as Yeo-wool in THE PIRATES
THE PIRATES is a blast of a movie. As a period piece, it holds a little more dramatic interest than a majority of similar-storied films that take always seem to take place in a fantasy time. The costuming and sets sparkle on the screen, and no expense has been spared. There is one chase scene through the streets of the sea village involving an aqueduct and a huge water wheel and period explosive devices, which is like being on a theme park ride. At first glance, this might even appear lifted from one of the Pirates of the Carribean movies, but 1) Hollywood steals sequences from Asian cinema ALL THE TIME, so it’s fair game, and 2) this is bigger, better, and more fun. The combat sequences are well-shot, full of twists and inventive punches, but most importantly always serve the plot. This is not a martial arts film that puts a fight above the story. Some die-hard genre fans may complain that there aren’t enough of them, but the ones in the film are some of the best I’ve seen and all clearly necessary to tell the adventure. However, what really makes THE PIRATES triumphant are the characters. Each member of the ensemble is a well-drawn complicated, often flawed, individual with their own distinct reason to hunt down the whale. The chemistry between Son Ye-jin as Yeo-wool and Kim Nam-gil as Jang Sa-jung is wonderfully fun, like a marauders’ Beatrice and Benedict. It’s sort of tame sexually, but that feels right for the period and style of the film. Lee Seok-hook has crafted a great family film. There is actually far less dialogue in the film than one would suspect, since its primarily an action film, so it might be a good introduction into foreign cinema for the family.
The Joseon Dynasty was founded in 1392, and led Korea until 1910. The missing seal is a historical fact, and though the film has been dubbed Korea’s answer to Pirates of the Caribbean, I think it’s a much stronger film than that. The issues here are honorable and universal. Yeo-wol’s connection to the whale is powerful and one of the more touching aspects of the film. The humor comes from situations and real characters out of their element, not just silly costumes and being drunk. Smart humor and crass humor both play into the arsenal of amusement and no one is immune from mockery. Even the founder of this powerful dynasty is made a fool, though he is given a chance to redeem himself at the end of the film.
This is a fun film. It’s not going to change the world, but it holds your attention with strong characters and flashy fight sequences. The beating heart of the film, Yeo-wool, draws us in with both her admirable relationship to the ‘God of the Sea,’ and her faux-fight to stave off the advances of the mountain bandit.
THE PIRATES opens nationwide today and if you can, see it on the big screen where ships were meant to battle.
Bears Fonté is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin, a new festival in Texas’ capital focused on SciFi. Prior to that, Bears served as Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival from 2012-14, overseeing some 200 films selected to screen at eight venues over eight days. The 2013 Festival saw 28 world premiere features and 7 films picked up at the festival or the week after. His most recent short film, THE SECRET KEEPER, has been selected by over 35 US Film Festivals since September of 2012. His feature thriller iCRIME, which he wrote and directed, was released on DVD, VOD and streaming by Vicious Circle Films in 2011. Bears also self-produced two web-series which have been seen by a combined ten million viewers.
Prior to arriving in Austin, Bears wrote coverage for independent producers and coverage services in LA and placed in nearly every single screenwriting contest out there including Screenwriter’s Expo, Final Draft Big Break, Page International, Story Pros and Austin Film Festival.
Bears received his BA from Carleton College in British Studies and Theatre Studies and a MFA in Directing from Indiana University and has directed over forty plays, including the Austin Critics Table nominee Corpus Christi, and the Austin Shakespeare Festival’s Complete Works of Shakspeare Abridged. He studied writing with noted playwrights Jeff Hatcher and Denis Reardon, and directed the first-ever professional productions by Princess Grace Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Don Zolidis and up-and-coming playwright Itamar Moses. He is currently working on a new five minute short to submit to festivals in 2015.