Title: The Pirates
Starring: Son Ye-jin, Kim Nam-gil
Genre: Historical, Comedy
Rating: ★★★★☆ | 3.5
Give me a historical slapstick swashbuckler about pirates and bandits fighting in a time of dynastic transition against the corrupt court and add to that a whale and imperialism and you have a recipe to make me the happiest girl on the world.
Yeo-wol is a pirate who’s successfully mutinied against a faithless captain, and she’s just been offered a contract by disgraced army captain Park Mo (AKA Ahab): bring back the imperial seal bestowed upon the newly-established Joseon by Ming, which was swallowed by a whale (hi, Moby Dick), and be rewarded with riches beyond imagination. Unfortunately for Yeo-wol, however, former lieutenant-turned-bandit Jang Sa-jung, who had opposed the rebellion that put Yi Seong-gye in power, has also heard about the prize, and he is willing to go to sea to save his failing bandit outpost. Sa-jung and Yeo-wol clash multiple times, but when both their demons come knocking, they’re forced to work together to build a future they want to live in.
The summary sounds all serious and dramatic, and to be honest, that’s kind of what I was expecting, so much so that it was completely jarring when I started watching and it was––funny? And really engaging, too. I often run into this problem (and this is the reason I don’t really watch kdramas anymore) where I like putting films on in the background while I’m doing other things––cooking, cleaning, doing homework, whatever––and so even as I’m an advocate for watching films with subtitles, I rarely do it myself unless it’s already a film I love (Musa), because I don’t often have two hours to spare to fully concentrate on what I’m watching.
But honestly, I couldn’t stop watching The Pirates. Not only was the styling so great and the choreography stellar, the romance was subtle, the CGI amazing, and if the plot took too long and had too many twists and turns and sometimes seemed cliche or unfocused, it was never so much that it affected my enjoyment.
I think the story felt ultimately quite emotionally empty, which is usually a dealbreaker for me, because a lot of the emotional strokes are quite heavyhanded––the resolution was convenient, and delivered a message of independence and ethnic pride, but it felt blunted by the fact that there’s no real lead-up. The romance wasn’t maudlin and took up very little screentime (which means that people who want action adventure without romance may enjoy it), but when it did happen it was sudden. Even Yeo-wol’s reveal about her connection with the whale and her distrust of soldiers and the reason she became a pirate––it hardly felt nuanced. I even remember rolling my eyes then because wow. How unexpected.
But the swash! The buckle! The suaveness and also the foolishness! The Chinese word for both pistachio and someone who makes others happy is 开心果, and that’s what this film felt like to me. It didn’t need to have an emotional core because it was about making the viewer happy in a more flippant way that doesn’t require energy or emotional labour from the viewer, which frankly, was just what I needed when I watched it only a week after the election. The drama and the comedy didn’t always feel cohesive, but the film is lighthearted and fun, and I was in the right space to really love it.