SEARCHING FOR THE GREAT WHITE TALE
On the eve of founding the Joseon Dynasty, a whale swallows the newly crowned Emperor’s seal on its way back from China. Eager to claim the big reward for whoever brings back the seal, Jang Sa Jung (Kim Nam Gil) and his mountain bandits head to sea to hunt down the whale. Meanwhile, Yeo Wol (Son Ye Jin), the female captain of the pirates, is also commissioned to hunt down the whale and the two groups clash in the fight to retrieve the seal.
This fusion historical sageuk is chock full of great character actors, humor and a strong leading cast. Many viewers are going to make comparisons to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, which frankly can’t be helped. There are essentially two parts to the main storyline of this movie: the sea pirates and the mountain bandits. In the Korean language, pirates are called hae-jeok (해적) or outlaws at sea and the bandits are called san-jeok (산적) or outlaws in the mountains. So in a sense, they both are enemies of the state.
Yeo Wol and Jang Sa Jung were both betrayed by their mentors and during the course of the movie, their mentors are both trying to kill them because they stand in the way of capturing the whale and the prizemoney. Here is the common ground that bonds the two leaders. Oh and possibly being marooned on the same island while being shackled together which forces you to pee awkwardly next to each other in the ocean. Just saying that either that experience is going to bond you or drive you mad.
Unfortunately, this commonality doesn’t help to evolve their affiliation with each other all that much. At least, not within the timeframe of the movie’s length. I really felt like that relationship needed to payoff by the end. Why would we care about them helping each other out? I just wasn’t satisfied by the flimsy payoff we got at the end merely to satisfy viewers.
Obviously I love that this movie is filled with all these character actors doing what they do best. Whether it’s Park Chul Min playing a conflicted Buddhist monk or Yoo Hae Jin playing Chul Bong, a sea pirate who has extreme sea sickness. In this packed cast, there’s Oh Dal Soo, Shin Jung Geun, Jo Dal Hwan, Kim Won Hae, Jo Hee Bong and Ahn Nae Sang as well, to name a few. Even if audiences don’t recognize their names, I’m sure that viewers will be familiar with the various work these actors have done in movies and dramas.
It’s hilarious to watch all the actors playing out the quirks in their characters. I love that the bandits are convinced that catching a whale is merely catching another type of fish. They totally don’t have an idea as to the sheer size of a baby whale. However, my favorite comedic scene has got to be the one in which the bandits try to steal from a group traveling on the road through this elaborately timed plot but due to the wrong signal being given it all goes awry. The sight of Kim Nam Gil swinging back and forth on a rope is hilarious. I’m a sucker for sight gags. Unfortunately, there are so many characters that it takes away the focus of the main storyline.
In fact, perhaps they needed all these character actors to fill the gaps in the story left by a main plotline which had no depth. I felt like Yeo Wol and Jang Sa Jung were very interesting characters on the surface level but other than a quick glimpse into their youth or sideways glance revealing their emotional side, we don’t really get much background into their characters other than that they were both betrayed. I think if you’re going to have two actors who can handle multilayered roles, why not take milk that for all that it’s worth?
The reason why this movie doesn’t reinvent the Pirates of the Caribbean brand in its own Korean image is because it just fills the two hours with a lot of comedy and action scenes that muddles the main plot. The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie had a compelling story at the foundation of the summer blockbuster but the fluff in Pirates makes it feel like it’s the 5th installment of a popular brand. Which is a shame considering the great talent of the actors that’s littered across this film.