They say that comedy can be highly culturally specific, and I can tell you it’s true after staring uncomprehendingly at the Korean movie Miss Granny earlier this year while the Korean audience around me cracked up. Still, some kinds of humor do translate, as proved by The Pirates, a slapstick-filled historical comedy that opens this week at AMC Grapevine Mills and should prove much more accessible to Westerners like me.
The story is set in 1392, when the Joseon dynasty has just taken power on the Korean peninsula. Inconveniently, the royal seal symbolizing China’s backing of the new regime is lost at sea after a whale attacks the ship carrying the emblem and eats the thing. Secretly, the government hires pirate queen Yeo-wol (Son Ye-jin) to kill the whale and retrieve the seal. However, bandit leader Jang Sa-jung, a.k.a. Crazy Tiger (Kim Nam-gil), hears of this and decides to beat her to the seal with his group of land-based thieves. Further complicating things, their pissed-off former bosses (Lee Kyeong-yeong and Kim Tae-woo) join forces to hunt down them and the whale.
The Pirates of the Caribbean movies exert a heavy influence here, especially in the scene in which a giant water wheel becomes dislodged and rolls through a city, forcing our heroes to flee from its path. Most of the hijinks emanate from Crazy Tiger’s idiotic thieves, who set off to catch the whale in a rowboat, refusing to believe their former pirate comrade Chol-bong (Yoo Hae-jin) when he describes the marine mammal’s size. They ignore Chol-bong again when the boat is taken for a wild ride by a shark, which the bandits mistake for a whale. When they finally see one of the huge creatures, they angrily throw things at Chol-bong for being right the whole time.
The proceedings are anchored by Kim Nam-gil, who looks dashing whether he’s wielding a sword or swinging from a rope. However, he’s equally comfortable looking sheepish when Crazy Tiger’s criminal schemes — like his attempt to rob a merchant caravan — come to spectacular grief. Son provides a nice poker-faced foil to him while ceding no ground in the swashbuckling department. Amid all the comical swordplay, there’s a moment of unexpected beauty early on when Yeo-wol dives into the ocean for a dropped gold trinket and finds herself face to face with the whale. (Animal lovers will be happy to know that Yeo-wol doesn’t really want to kill the whale, regarding the animals as sacred creatures.) Director Lee Seok-hoon applies a light touch to all this that makes The Pirates into a fun contrast with the serious fare that often comes to this theater, Korean cinema’s beachhead in Grapevine.
Starring Kim Nam-gil and Son Ye-jin. Directed by Lee Seok-hoon. Written by Cheon Seong-il. Not rated.