The Pirates: The Last Royal Treasure / 해적: 도깨비 깃발

A Korean swashbuckling pirate epic! But can this film balance comedy and adventure on the high seas?

What’s The Movie? The Pirates: The Last Royal Treasure / 해적: 도깨비 깃발

What’s It All About, JG? Pirates. And treasure. You might just possibly be able to infer what kind of movie this is, but let’s do the necessary. A bunch of bandits, led by the spectacularly-haired Woo Moo-chi (Kang Ha-neul), are adrift at sea when they are rescued by Hae-rang (Han Hyo-joo). She’s the owner of a pirate ship and is on the search for – you guessed it – the royal treasure of Goryeo, which vanished at sea without a trace. The rest of the movie is basically a quest to find said treasure, which leads to all sorts of what can only be described as shenanigans – nearly dying via a herd of CGI cows, getting sucked into a vortex, sword battles in the middle of lightning storms, that sort of thing. Ranged against our unlikely band are Bu Heung-soo (Kwon Sang-woo) and his crew, rebels who are also after the treasure. It all ends with comedy penguins and sailing off into the sunset. Yup, it’s that kind of pirate movie.

Why Did You Give It A Go? A lighthearted knockabout pirate movie seemed like an entertaining enough way to spend a Saturday evening, it’s been fairly well received in Korea, and it’s easily available on Netflix. Also, I had some wine.

Is It Any Good? It’s not bad, really, but it often struggles to reach “good”, though it does manage it a few times. It’s a frustrating film in some ways, because there’s definitely a good movie in there, but it’s also rather muddled and frequently gets carried away with itself when even just a modicum of restraint would have served the film better. Take, for example, the comedy penguins. One is introduced, extremely nonchalantly holding a gold ingot in its beak. The treasure they’ve been searching for! And it’s a genuinely funny moment. There then follows a bit of slapstick (which is generally pretty good) and eventually we get to encounter a whole host of penguins. Who turn out to be rather good at defending their hoard. And then really good at defending their hoard. Then there’s some bum pinching with beaks. And on and on it goes. The escalation is initially funny but it just won’t stop and it ends up rather undercutting the comedy in the first place.

This is also a very scattershot film, and frequently confusing. There’s a technique the film uses, whereby short flashbacks and cutaways are used to illustrate a point or to inject a bit of back-story into proceedings. In theory this is fine, but the actual editing is frequently so incoherent it can be hard to keep track of when we’re viewing a flashback and when things are contemporary. And even when we stick with the contemporary setting the editing does us no favours. Otherwise well-executed fight scenes, of which there are many, are frequently undercut (heh) by shaky editing and the inability to just let us see what’s going on. The fight sequences look like they’re really well put together so it would be nice, you know, to see them. It’s especially frustrating because when the camera does get to rest we can get some great moments. The “underground river”, full of jellyfish and blue light, is a fantastic sequence, the crew pulled along by underwater currents to emerge into a cave. The pacing is fast but it’s mostly single-camera and there’s a clear, precise view of what’s going on. The film aches for more moments like that instead of juddery shots that suggests the cameraman might have had a bit too much to drink the night before and is now suffering from the DT’s.

What largely saves the movie is an incredibly game cast. Kang Ha-neul absolutely thows himself at a completely ludicrous part and manages to be a thoroughly entertaining adventurer on the high seas without just seeming like a cheap Johnny Depp knock-off. As owner of the pirate ship, Han Hyo-Joo’s Hae-Rang is a terrific character – extremely competent, frequently frustrated by the men she’s forced to put up with, and just great fun to watch. Indeed, all the female characters do extremely well out of this movie, and there’s never a sense in which, as can happen in pirate movies, the women are just there for a bit of decoration or to be peril monkeys in need of rescuing. Hae-Rang is easily the most capable character of the lot, in fact, and as with everyone here appears to be having a whale of a time messing about in a very silly historical pirate adventure. Which, fair enough! As our requisite bad guy, Bu Heung-Su is played with appropriate boo-hiss appeal by Kwon Sang-woo, and feels like a credible enough threat to anchor the dramatic portions of the movie. Well, dramatic might be overstating it, but the bits where Our Heroes need someone to face off against at any rate. Overall, the cast are easily the best thing here.

How Many Of These Have You Seen? The number of Korean pirate movies I have seen is exactly one – this one. This movie is a sort-of sequel to the 2014 movie The Pirates. Your reviewer has not done due diligence and watched it.

Would You Recommend It? I guess so. It’s often engaging and frequently entertaining, but that fringe of frustration very much remains. There’s just so much potential for this to be great, rather than merely good, that it’s actively annoying to see how close it comes while still visibly falling short. The comedy is often broad, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – there’s lots of huge double-takes, farce, slapstick and just a generally appealing knockabout air that helps give the film a sense of momentum. But that shonky editing really feels like it spoils things, and if it seems like I’m over-focussing on that then it’s because it really is what drags the film down. At just a shade over two hours this isn’t too long in terms of its absolute running time, but if often feels like like it’s going on forever simply because big chunks of the film are incoherent. Our Heroes have won! But there’s more! And another scene! And another scene! And another! Isn’t this over yet? And, uh, now a big ocean vortex! And lightning! And… on and on it goes. The film feels like it drags not because there isn’t enough going on but rather because there’s too much and it just all blurs into one big smear of screen-time.

The special effects are fairly hit and miss too, which can lead to some seriously uncanny-valley results. Generally speaking the pirate ships themselves look fine, especially when getting tossed about on the high seas, but elsewhere the CGI can be pretty ropey. Those cows… I mean, I get they didn’t want to use actual cows to stampede the cast but at the same time they’re really not great. Yet somehow the penguins looks fantastic but something as simple as a bit of green-screen landscape in the background can look remarkably fake. To be fair, this was watched at home rather than in the cinema, and perhaps on the big screen the joins are a little less obvious, but even so some of the work here just isn’t quite as good as it needs to be. It’s great that the film has ambitions, but its resources don’t always quite match up to bringing them to life in a wholly convincing manner.

But ultimately, if truth be told, it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours. If this review has focussed a little more on the negatives than the positives that’s because of the aforementioned frustrations at how little would need to change to make this a top-tier action-adventure movie. As it is, though, it’s still a pretty solid one, and it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of indulgent hours with ones critical facilities dialled down and ones indulgent side dialled up. The ending is never really in doubt – of course the bad guy is defeated, of course Our Heroes find the gold they’re searching for – but then that’s never really the point of movies like this. It’s all about the journey getting there, and between lost maps, elephant tusks, pillars of fire and lost islands (and, yes, comedy penguins) there’s plenty of journey to be had. This is, in other words, a perfectly good Saturday-night movie.

Scores On The Doors? 6.5/10

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