Every so often, a film comes along that completely shatters your expectations. You think you’ve got it figured out and then it throws a curveball. Then another. Then five more. Soon you realize you can’t figure the film out and you have to just let it happen, because even hazarding a guess at what happens next will just make you look silly. It’s rare for something so consistently bizarre to be released, and even rarer for it to be a blockbuster, even a foreign one.
But The Pirates is one of those films. And I’m still reeling from the impact.
The Pirates (Haejuk: Badaro Gan Sanjuk | 해적: 바다로 간 산적)
Director: Lee Suk-Hoon
Release Date: September 12, 2014
Country: South Korea
Here is a short list of things I thought of while I was watching The Pirates:
- Moby Dick
- The Pirates of the Carribean
- The amusement park ride that The Pirates of the Carribean is based on
- The Matrix
- Cards Against Humanity
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
- The Discovery Channel
- Batman Begins
- Kundo: Age of the Rampart
It’s not in any particular order, nor is it complete. But I think it says enough about just how many disparate elements The Pirates throws out in its 130 minute runtime. It’s not a film content with resting on its laurels and telling a conventional narrative (or really much of a narrative at all), because it’s too busy stringing together scenes that are so wildly different in style and tone that I honestly can’t figure out how the whole project got the green light.
There are essentially four factions in The Pirates: pirates (duh), bandits, soldiers, and whales. The whales don’t know they’re a faction, and the soldiers/some of the pirates don’t know that the bandits are a faction either. And the bandits have never been on the sea before, so they just kind of don’t know what they’re doing when they decide to go after the whales. A mother whale, you see, has eaten the royal seal for the new country of Joseon. But rather than admit this to the king, the political leaders who lost it decide to pin the blame on pirates. They then hire a disgraced, imprisoned soldier to capture the whale, and he hires some pirates to do it. Some bandits hear about it, and eventually it becomes one big ocean extravaganza.
Maybe you can tell by this point that The Pirates is ludicrously stupid, but maybe you can’t. Here is the moment where the film totally lost me: a female pirate captain uses an Aqueduct like a water slide in order to catch the men who stole from her. That is not the stupidest thing that happens in that scene (by a long shot), but it serves as sort of a stupidity baseline. It’s also kind of amazing. Because seriously. She jumps in a freaking Aqueduct, brings a crossbow with her, and fires arrows at some people running with a pull cart. Doesn’t that sound like the best thing ever?
And while The Pirates isn’t the best thing ever, it really does throw in everything and the kitchen sink. It’s like a bunch of Korean children were asked what the name The Pirates meant to them (that’s not its Korean name, by the way, but if you can’t roll with this hypothetical then you’re not going to make it through the film) and then write out a five sentence summary. That summary was then given to a different, probably blind child who put the summaries in a totally random order before handing them off to a screenwriter who said, “Perfect!” and turned it into a screenplay. It’s really quite bad on a fundamental level, but it’s also really, really funny. It’s extremely immature, but it’s also amazingly honest.
In fact, I’m not convinced that the whole thing wasn’t created entirely by children. Certainly director Lee Suk-Hoon must be a child at heart. But I don’t say this to insult the film, because it actually makes for a film that’s bizarrely refreshing. I don’t know what I expected from a film called The Pirates, but this sure as hell wasn’t it.
At the start, I thought I was in for something derivative. After a badass intro sequence is a political intro followed by a sword fight in the dark and pouring rain featuring the most heinous use of slow mo since 300. I wasn’t impressed, but I was willing to stick with it. Then it turned funny. Then it turned totally insane. It also completely stopped using slow-mo, which I was grateful for but also confused by. Was that first interaction directed by someone else? Did someone show a child some fight scenes from The Matrix and 300 and ask what to do next? That latter one seems both more and less likely, but it conjures up a more enjoyable image.
The action in general isn’t great, though The Pirates seems to think it’s more impressive than it is. When a battle is won, it’s like some big epic moment has finished, but it’s really just the culmination of a bunch of slow movements (but not slow motion) and rapid cuts. I was often not really sure what was happening, but I knew it wasn’t great. And then it’s over too quickly and suddenly I’m bored.
But it’s hard to be bored for long, because you really never know what’s coming next. If I had to compare it to only one thing, I would choose an amusement park ride. This is not a Korean version of Pirates of the Carribean the movie; it is a Korean adaptation of the film’s amusement park source material. And whereas Pirates of the Carribean succeeds on merits the of its lead performance, The Pirates succeeds on its commitment to a wild and crazy ride.
Also, it has a CGI whale baby breastfeeding. So… that’s something.