Jang Sa-jung (Kim Nam-gil) used to be an officer in the Korean military of the 1380s as the nation prepared for rule by the Ming Dynasty, but he strongly objected to this, to the extent that he got into a sword fight with one of his superiors and after a fierce battle, killed him. Now a fugitive, he adopts the name Crazy Tiger and retreats to the forest, scraping by as the leader of a gang of bandits, but out to sea he is not aware of a pirate named Yeo-wol (Son Ye-jin). She used to be the righthand woman of So-ma (Lee Kyeong-yeong), one of the most ruthless brigands on the ocean, but decided to mutiny when he ordered her to kill some prisoners and rescued slaves, and now leads his men. She also has a connection to a whale...
Yes, a whale, in this South Korean answer to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies which wound up being better than any of the official sequels in that franchise, not that director Lee Seok-hoon's efforts hit as big internationally as those. This left it waiting to be discovered across the world, not simply its homeland, and it did indeed begin to pick up fans who responded to its winning mixture of over the top action and irreverent humour, which you could argue was a straight lift from what Johnny Depp had been up to when he enjoyed his latter career renaissance with his Captain Jack Sparrow persona. Yet there was a genuine charm here, particularly in Kim's performance, that prevented it looking like shtick.
Although he and Son's character would seem to be obvious choices for a screen romance, surprisingly Lee kept them apart for a good half of the running time, their plotlines parallel to one another and even when they did meet up they did not like the look of each other in time-honoured antagonistic lovers-to-be clichés. Nevertheless, when they did not actually begin to thaw towards their counterpart, or more specifically Yeo-wol did towards the Tiger, until the practically the last shot before the credits began to roll, you could surmise that either Lee was keen for a sequel or he did not want his seafaring escapades cluttered up with any of that lovey-dovey stuff, recognising the worth of delayed satisfaction.
As to that plot, it may have been far more complicated than perhaps it could have been, its patterns really filling up those two hours plus, but the further it rolled along the more you got the idea and a working knowledge of Korean history was not necessary to follow what was up with the importance of a certain royal seal as given to the Korean leader by Emperor Ming. The problem there was that the seal was transported by sea, and when the ship it was on was attacked by a huge whale in retaliation for being attacked by them, it was not merely lost on the sea bed but swallowed by the creature which could be distinguished by the flagpole sticking out of its back, debris from the wrecked ship and a neat shorthand for audience and characters alike when the hunt for the whale commenced.
There seemed to be a strongly anti-whaling theme to this, as the beast in question is shown to be a mother therefore slaughtering it for the royal seal was a crime against nature, no matter how valuable the gold knick-knack may have been. More prominently, there was a plea to Koreans north and south to forget about China and unite, setting aside differences that had forced them apart for some time, though you could be forgiven for not concentrating on that aspect and purely appreciate The Pirates for its action and gags. Although not exactly an absolute kneeslapper, this had its moments of valid humour that would raise a laugh, mostly thanks to the Tiger and his motley crew, only one of whom, Chul-bong (Yoo Hae-jin), had any experience of sailing and keeps having to correct his shipmates when, say, they mistake a great white shark for that darned whale, or any number of landlubber misconceptions about life on the ocean, and in it. There was more than adequate spectacle with pretty decent effects and standard of combat sequences, but mostly it was that shaggy dog quality in its storytelling that engaged the audience. Music by Hwang Sang-joon.