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South Korea is not a country one would normally associate with the pirate movie genre, but it comes into its own with Lee Seok-hoon’s elaborate comedy/adventure, which has proven a huge hit in its native land. Arriving on these shores shortly on the heels of such similarly popular period epics as The Admiral: Roaring Currents and Kundo: Age of the Rampant, The Pirates, set in the late fourteenth century at the beginning of the Josean dynasty, is a rambunctious crowd-pleaser that compares more than favorably with the last few installments of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, its obvious inspiration.
The film’s most notable element is its heroine — yes, heroine. She’s Yeo-wol (stirringly played by Son Ye-jin), who proves herself the capable leader of a group of pirates in pursuit of a whale that has swallowed the emperor’s royal golden seal. Both tough and tender — early in the film she has an underwater bonding experience with the whale, and later she fiercely protects its young calf — she finds her and her crew competing with several other groups of cutthroats as they engage in their Captain Ahab-style pursuit.
The feminist twist is the most original aspect of the proceedings, which otherwise includes a host of familiar pirate movie tropes. There’s also a band of comically outlandish bandits recalling Robin Hood and his merry men whose leader (Kim Nam-gil) becomes a romantic foil for the swashbuckling Yeo-wol.
Much like the Disney pirate epics, the film lurches from one elaborate set piece to another, including a Rube Goldberg-style sequence featuring a giant water slide that seems ready-made for theme parks. The endless slapstick fight scenes suffer from their repetition, and the overlong running time threatens to induce more exhaustion than exhilaration. The special effects are sometimes on the spotty side, although the underwater sequences involving the whales have a hauntingly ethereal quality.
Production: Harimao Pictures
Cast: Kim Nam-gil, Son Ye-jin, Lee Kyeong-yeong, Kim Tae-woo, Park Chul-min, Oh Dal-su
Director: Lee Seok-hoon
Screenwriter: Seong-il Cheon
Producer: Kang Min-gyu
Executive producers: Cha Won-chun
Director of photography: Kim Young-ho
Editor: Lee Jin
Production designer: Kim Ji-a
Composer: Hwang Sang-jun
No rating, 130 minutes
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