It’s been a long time since I did a movie review, cos I haven’t had the time to actually watch any K-movies recently. (sadded much)

Main cast:

  • Kim Nam-gil as Jang Sa-jung. An ex-military officer from the Goryeo army. He refused to take part in the coup and as a result, was chased out of his camp. (ok, he had to fight his way out) He changed jobs to become a bandit — although not exactly a very good one, since his followers complain that they only hunt wild boars and scavenge for roots to stave off hunger pangs. One day, he hears about the lost Joseun imperial seal…and decides to job hop again to become a pirate.
  • Son Ye-jin as Yeo-wol. A pirate-ss that looks too pretty to be one. But don’t be fooled by her genteel-looking features, this girl packs a punch and more. Plus, she has a loyal group of (all male) pirates following her. When she overthrew the mean pirate ex-captain, So-ma, (who had adopted her), she basically took control of his ship. She doesn’t like unnecessary killings and is a Friend of the Ocean (aka she wants to protect Whale which swallowed that darned seal). Yeo-wol’s father was a pirate and her mum, a haenyeo (female diver). Both were killed by Goryeo militants.
  • Yoo Hae-jin as Cheol-bong. Previously a pirate under So-ma, he jumped ship when he heard So-ma betraying his own crew to the Imperial Navy. Ironically, he suffers from sea sickness even though his (ex) vocation is a pirate. His new job is a bandit — under Sa-jung’s camp.
  • Kim Tae-woo as Mo Heung-gap. Previously Sa-jung’s hyung and commanding officer, he chose to join the coup, which eventually flopped. He lost an eye in a fight with Sa-jung, and was later imprisoned by the Joseun army after the failed coup. He is recruited by Do-jeon to retrieve the swallowed imperial seal.
  • Lee Kwong-young as So-ma. Pirate captain, previously from the ship where Yeo-wol now heads. After suffering a defeat, So-ma harbours a grudge against Yeo-wol and vows to return to kill her. He later join forces with baddie, Heung-gap, for Whale capture.
  • Oh Dal-soo as Han Sang-jil. The court official who lost the imperial seal to a whale and under his boss’ (Do-jeon) advice, blames it on the pirates. This leads to the King ordering a mass wipeout of the local bandit/pirate groups. (isn’t that supposed to be a good thing?)
  • Ahn Nae-sang as Jeong Do-jeon. Sang-jil’s superior, and the one who gave him the valid-sounding excuse on why he lost the imperial seal. While the army is busy chasing down bandits/pirates, he secretly releases Heung-gap and gives him a naval officer post, with the objective of chasing down that whale and retrieving the seal within the 14 days deadline.
  • Choi Sulli as Hyuk-myo. A slave girl which Yeo-wol rescued during one of the raids. She refused to be sent back to her family, since she knows her parents will juz sell her away as a slave again. Instead, she joins the pirates and brands herself as Yeo-wol’s right hand (wo)man. Adores and hero(ine)-worship Yeo-wol.
  • Whale as Whale. The creature who accidentally(?) swallows the imperial seal after smashing the Joseun Navy ship. I’d smash it too, since the bad people on it are trying to harpoon the whale. Differentiated from other whales by the naval flag sticking out from its back — a result of the ship smashing.

Synopsis:

Introductions to all the main players in Pirates take up a short 20mins screentime. After which, we are tossed right into the thick of action. First off, Sa-jung. He questions his General’s motive in retreating from the war against the Ming Empire — too much rain, too much flood, and not “courteous” to fight against a bigger country. Sa-jung claims he’d rather live as a bandit than rebel against the Goryeo empire. Well, he got his wish granted. After a nasty fight with Heung-gap (which he injured badly), Sa-jung escapes with a few of his loyal soldiers. I suppose they also followed him to become (ineffective) mountain bandits. Sa-jung escapes during a bungled robbery later, and hears from a local fence (who also happens to serve Yeo-wol) about the Whale hunt.

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We are introduced to Yeo-wol (and by association, Cheol-bong) as she fights her way through a merchant ship. She doesn’t like the way her pirate captain (So-ma) murders the merchant in cold blood, but swallows her protests. When one of the golden Buddha statues sinks into the sea, she leaps in and has a chance encounter with THE humpbacked whale. That night, So-ma forces her to rebel against him when he selectively picks the weakest crew members (including the recently saved slave, Hyuk-myo) and hands them over to the naval officer (to meet the latter’s capture quota). She wins the duel against So-ma and tosses him into the sea.

In the Ming Dynasty, Sang-jil happily receives the new Imperial Seal and decree from the Ming Emperor to recognise Joseun as an empire. Unfortunately, on the trip back home, his naval ship encounters Whale. And of ALL things, the navy officers decide they want to harpoon Whale and chase after it with cannons and fire-tipped arrows. Of cos, this angers Whale and it decides to smash the naval vessal to smithereens. (serves them right) It may have accidentally swallowed the Imperial Seal in the process. Anyway, Sang-jil loses the Seal to Whale, and meets with his superior for a Plan B. Do-jeon tells him to blame it on an act of piracy, which Sang-jil does. So the poor local bandits and pirates end up on the no. 1 hit list of the Joseun King, who orders his army to capture the whole lot of them.

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Do-jeon of cos, knows the truth…and introduces us to the last important character, Heung-gap. Heung-gap is imprisoned due to his participation in the (failed) coup. His condition of release is to help Do-jeon retrieve the Imperial Seal, which entails capturing Whale and slitting its tummy open. (noooo!!!! i’m going to sue the bunch of u) Heung-gap knows his naval warship is slow and will not be able to catch up to Whale. So, he outsources the hunting bit to Yeo-wol. He gets her to agree to his plan by threatening to torture their family members if they refuse to obey.

The hijinks start when Sa-jung and his ragtag group of bandits decide it’s worth their while to try to catch Whale and gain the King’s favour. However, being landlubbers, they are totally (and i mean, TOTALLY) unprepared for sailing. They don’t believe Cheol-bong when he claims that whales are HUGE, they are mammalian, have blow spouts, have no teeth, and eat by sucking their food in. The bandits manage to steal part of Yeo-wol’s newly purchased bombs/cannons (to hunt Whale), but they happily think that travelling by sea is the same as on land. Meaning: they are unprepared in terms of fresh food/water, and assume that their homemade raft will be able to withstand the rough seas. Of course, within three days, all of them are parched and dried out. Then, they see a Shark…and awed by its size, think it’s Whale. Shark gets harpooned, and in its pain, drags their makeshift raft on super speed. The bandits get a free jet-ski ride across the ocean in return for their silly mistake.

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When Sa-jung finally admits he is out of his depth, he promotes Cheol-bong from Maknae to Vice Team Leader — which totally annoys the rest of the bandit group. Cheol-bong’s first mission is to steal a proper ship (even though he insists that they are shorthanded to manage a ship). Anyway, of ALL ships to steal, the group decides on stealing one of Heung-gap’s naval vessals. They nearly don’t make it out alive, since the whole navy is after them. Heung-gap and Sa-jung see each other too, and have a short skirmish at the docks. Sa-jung manages to get on the stolen ship safely, leaving Heung-gap fuming.

But Heung-gap isn’t the only baddie in Pirates. As expected, So-ma survives his swim in the sea and returns to hunt Yeo-wol. He batters their ship juz when Yeo-wol and her crew stop temporarily to shoot Whale. Yeo-wol is reluctant to murder Whale, since she has a little whale kid that is still suckling milk. While So-ma and Yeo-wol are battling it out again, Sa-jung and crew (who are following another whale) chance upon the 2 ships…and utter confusion happens. The 3 parties commingled, Yeo-wol loses the battle and Sa-jung and team are captured. Except for one of Sa-jung’s bandit, Monk, who kinda drifted off on Sa-jung’s unmanned ship in the confusion. So-ma chains Yeo-wol and Sa-jung together and makes them walk the plank. Yeo-wol bravely accepts her lot, but Sa-jung immediately wimps out and pleads for mercy. Unfortunately, he is dragged down to sea when Yeo-wol jumps.

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And Whale, hearing the bells on Yeo-wol’s bracelet…saves her. We have a short flashback to a time when Yeo-wol is a young girl, and she saves Whale from a fisherman’s net. That explains the surreal affinity Whale has with Yeo-wol. Both Yeo-wol and Sa-jung wash up on shore, and Sa-jung sees that Yeo-wol is injured and takes care of her. Meanwhile, So-ma decides to hand off Yeo-wol’s pirates and Sa-jung’s bandits to Heung-gap, and he gleefully tells Heung-gap that he has killed Yeo-wol. Heung-gap of course is miffed. Since he is depending on Yeo-wol to bring back Whale. Nevertheless, So-ma promises to help capture Whale’s baby — it is far easier to trap Whale that way. (horrid)

We get some rom-com on the deserted island where Yeo-wol and Sa-jung are holing up in. Yeo-wol wakes up from her coma to find Sa-jung chained next to her. And she reels in disgust as Sa-jung scratches his privates and brings his hands up to sniff — while sleeping. (eew) On the second scratch attempt, Sa-jung brings the chained hand towards his pants and Yeo-wol freaks out. She realises Sa-jung is pretending to sleep and cuffs him. That doesn’t stop Sa-jung’s cheekiness though — he insists he needs to pee and has to drag Yeo-wol along. Yeo-wol counter proposes an idea — to relieve themselves in the sea while standing chained together. That sorta works, but Sa-jung enjoys sweeping his side of the water towards Yeo-wol. (lol) One night, while they are peeing in the sea (and Yeo-wol is tricked by Sa-jung to semi-undress herself, cos he ends up comparing battle scars with her..), they see Sa-jung’s ship (with Monk) drifting towards them. The couple manages to leave the island on Sa-jung’s ship. (shucks, i was really beginning to enjoy their romantic tete-a-tete)

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The bandits and pirates, who are locked up together in So-ma’s ship, get into a petty disagreement over whose occupation is superior. Poor Cheol-bong, who is an amphibian now, is stuck in the middle of the quarrels. Well, they don’t need to reach an agreement, cos the whole bunch of them are sentenced to death when So-ma docks his ship at the naval pier. However, Sa-jung and Yeo-wol arrive in time to rescue them. Poor Cheol-bong gets his ropes cut last cos Yeo-wol assumes he’s the bandit team and Sa-jung assumes he’s under the pirates’ crew. (lol…the sad fate of the amphibian) Yeo-wol returns to her ship to seek out So-ma and rescue Hyuk-myo, while Sa-jung returns back to land. But not for long…after Sa-jung sees the carnage Heung-gap has wrought on fishing villages on the pretext of rooting out pirates (but actually carrying out the King’s side orders to capture young boys and girls for the Ming Dynasty as slaves), he vows to track Heung-gap and exact revenge.

Yeo-wol catches up with So-ma juz as he manages to kill Whale, after luring her by trapping Baby Whale first. (aww) A fight ensues, and not long after, Sa-jung (on his new spiffy ship) catches up. It’s lucky that Heung-gap and So-ma do not see eye-to-eye, cos the 2 baddies are busy fighting among themselves, allowing Yeo-wol and Sa-jung an advantage. Yeo-wol stabs So-ma in the fight, but instead of hateful words, So-ma orders Yeo-wol to flee…cos he has set a bomb on his ship (as a safeguard against Heung-gap), and fire from the skirmish has activated the fuse. Sa-jung, meanwhile, stabs Heung-gap in the foot, and traps him. Yeo-wol’s pirates and Sa-jung’s bandits manage to flee the exploding ship on time.

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In an epilogue, Sa-jung pays a late night visit to the Joseun King, and tells him the truth about the lost seal. He also warns the King not to bow down to Ming, even though they have acknowledged Joseun as a “new Kingdom”. The next day, the annoyed King learns the truth from Sang-jil and Do-jeon. He instructs Sang-jil to return to Ming and revise their terms of treaty (to stop sending Joseun kids as slaves to them).

The pirates and bandits now all work on Yeo-wol’s ship, and we see Yeo-wol/ Sa-jung and their crew sailing into the sunset.

Review:

It’s one fun, campy ride. Reminiscent of Johnny Depp‘s Pirates of Caribbean series, but with a darker historical undertone. I’ve not brought this up in the Synopsis, but Pirates reminds us that the early days of the Joseun empire is anything but peaceful. The change from Goryeo to Joseun is bloody, and the people most affected by it are the civilians. Life was hard, and many chose the routes of piracy and robbery in order to survive. Even then, they also face daily threats of imprisonment or execution. Like Yeo-wol’s family. Also, the Joseun’s wipeout of religion — notably Buddhism, which was prevalent in Goryeo Temples and statuettes were covered with gold, when people are starving. However, destroying Buddist temples and religious artifacts are pretty extreme measures to take.

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Dark historical times aside, Pirates is a really easy to follow show. I love Sa-jung — his character is not the typical swashbuckling, chivalrous hero. Yes, he IS chivalrous…in an earlier fight with Yeo-wol over the stealing of her ship’s weapons, he automatically shielded Yeo-wol from arrows (though the act is kinda undercut, since he knows he’s wearing a bullet arrow proof vest). When he sees Yeo-wol injured (while chained together), he goes around scouring for fresh water and herbs to treat her wound. But he covers his kind nature with a flippant attitude. He is always teasing and flirting with Yeo-wol, and never misses the chance to see if he can disrobe her or make her blush in discomfort at his sexual innuendos.

However, I like how Sa-jung is portrayed. As a soldier, I don’t really expect him to have the best manners around women. But deep down, he abides by a strict code of honour — as seen when he challenges his General on why they are retreating from the war against Ming and rebelling against the Goryeo King. And really, other than teasing Yeo-wol, he hasn’t taken advantage of her, even when she is out cold from her injury (and he has to take off part of her top to treat her chest/shoulders).

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Yeo-wol, as a character, doesn’t really impress me that much. (even though Son Ye-jin does snare a Grand Bell Award for her role) However, Yeo-wol’s representation of women in an otherwise chauvinist society then is remarkable. The real fate of women in Joseun can be seen in characters like Hyuk-myo or mentions of women that are presented to the Ming Dynasty. In short, women in Joseun are either someone’s personal slave, sex slave, or at best, a communal sex slave with a slightly better chance of becoming a “businesswoman” — aka gisaeng. And being of noble born only ensures that your “master” and his family treat you slightly better (hopefully) than if you are a commoner.

Yeo-wol, with her command of an entire ship, together with a pirate crew that will sail to the end of the world with her, is an anomaly in that era. Although leading a ship full of men (and one other woman), Yeo-wol doesn’t come across as a tom-boy. Far from it actually. She blushes like a genteel lady when teased by Sa-jung, her threats to “slap his rude mouth” don’t have any bite behind them. Plus, she is not blood thirsty — even though her occupation requires her to.

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