China’s Emperor Ming sent a Royal Seal and a new name for the Korean nation, but the ship was wrecked in a storm, and a whale swallowed the seal. Now the bandits, the pirates, and the mercenaries hired by the royal court are in a race to find the seal.
“Haejeok: Badaro Gan Sanjeok” also known as “The Pirates” is a 2014 South Korean film written by Chun Sung-Il and Choi Yi-Young and directed by Lee Seok Hoon. It is a combination of action, fantasy, historical period, adventure, and comedy.
The film stars Son Ye-Jin and Kim Nam-Gil in the leading roles. The film was produced by Im Young-Ho and Chun Sung-Il and distributed by Lotte Entertainment. The soundtrack was composed by Hwang Sang-Jun.
On the eve of the founding of the Korean Joseon Dynasty nature intervenes in the form of a giant grey whale, that swallows the Emperor’s Ming’s Royal Seal of State being brought to Joseon by envoys from China.
With a big reward for whoever brings back the Royal Seal, mountain bandits led by Jang Sa-Jung (Kim-Nam Gil) go out to sea to hunt down the whale. But he soon clashes with Yeo-wol (Son Ye-Jin), a female pirate captain, and an unexpected adventure unfolds.
When a generous reward is offered to whoever can retrieve the Royal Seal from the belly of the whale, the race is on. A group of mountain bandits led by Jang Sa Jung (Kim-Nam Gil) and a group of pirates led by Yeo Wol (Son Ye-Jin) go after the lost treasure, but who will get to it first?
WHERE TO WATCH
The film can be watched for free or rented/bought on multiple streaming platforms except Netflix. The streaming platforms where it’s offered for free are geographically restricted.
THE STORY OF THE PIRATES
In this section, I will share with you how I understood the story with subtitles. Yes, there are going to be major spoilers, but I think it’s important to share this perspective because sometimes things can get lost in translation or cultural differences may have an impact on how one interprets the story. I think it’s unfair when this happens with critics that are very quick to judge. Especially with foreign cinema, audiences tend to rely on critics and influencers who sometimes have their own biases or even have no idea about what they are reviewing.
Eventually, I think it’s better to watch it and make your own assessment. Sometimes rewatching is necessary. Afterward, it’s fun to compare with these “critics and influencers” and see how much they got wrong. There is always something to note. Now, let’s get into the story…
The story starts in 1388 at Wihwa Island on the Amrok River. Soldiers are asking for rewards to share with their families. Turns out the soldiers were planning an act of betrayal. One of the soldiers, Jang Sa-Jung, played by Kim Nam-Gil, opposed this and was forced to fight to the death against one of his soldier brothers, Mo Heung-Gap played by Kim Tae-Woo who killed a brother who just had a newborn.
On the brink of dying, he was saved by a group of bandits. We then see a ship attacked by pirates. We are introduced to Yeo-Wol, played by Son Ye-Jin, a female pirate who is the right hand of Captain So-Ma, played by Lee Geung-Young. The ship they took over had female slaves that she set free. One of them, Heuk-Myo played by Choi Sulli, requested to stay with Yeo-Wol.
During the transportation of the goods, the pirates robbed to their ship, a golden Budha statue falls into the sea. Yeo-Wol goes after it and finds it. While she was in the water a large whale swam next to her.
In the evening, the pirates are retelling stories of Yeo-Wol’s bravery to the newbie and complain about how the captain is always retaining all the wealth for himself. Heuk-Myo asks why Yeo-Wol can’t just take over. We learn that one of the pirates, Chul-Bong hates being at sea and getting seasick. He leaves the group and goes near the captain’s cabin.
Chul-Bong overhears the captain’s plans to sacrifice 7 pirates. Captain So-Ma was talking to the captain of the ship they’d taken and they strangely seemed on friendly terms. The losing captain needs a scapegoat to justify the robbery.
Captain So-Ma proceeds with his selection of the scapegoats. Yeo-Wol opposed this which raises the interest of the other captain. He wants her but Captain So-Ma offered the slave girl she freed instead. Yeo-Wol opposed it and fought Captain So-Ma. She wins the fight and becomes the new captain. The arrogant Captain So-Ma voluntarily jumps into the sea.
Next, we see the Chinese Emperor offering the new seal of Joseon to the Royal Court messenger in exchange for 500 maids and 200 eunuchs. On the way back to the new Joseon the Royal soldiers on the ship hear a strange sound and think it’s pirates and start preparing for battle. They see that it’s nothing but a baby whale and decide to attack it anyway.
In response, the mother whale starts to attack the ship and eventually destroys it. When the messenger from the Royal court tries to recover the Royal Seal, the large whale swallows it.
On land we see Chul-Bong wandering in the forest looking for “Crazy Tiger” (Jang Sa-Jung), the leader of the bandits. He wants to join their group. As he seems incompetent on the surface Crazy Tiger takes pity on him and gives him the lowest rank (the 30st) in his gang.
In the meantime, the royal court messenger is delivering the bad news to the Royal official who recommended him. Afraid of beheading by the King, they decide to lie to their king. They could not tell the truth about how they lost the seal. Instead, they blame the pirates as thieves of the Royal Seal. Still, the king wanted the seal back and gave them 2 weeks to find it.
THE WHALE HUNTING BEGINS
They then proceed to hire Mo Heung-Gap, who was imprisoned and has now only one eye. His mission is to look out for the whale and get the Royal Seal back in exchange for a reward.
He then proceeds to forcibly recruit Captain Yeo-Wol to help him catch the whale. To prepare for the hunt the pirates go on land to the Central Port to look for ammunition to hunt the whale.
At the Central Port, they encounter Crazy Tiger and his group of bandits. Crazy Tiger gets in the way of Captain Yeo-Wol. They immediately test their fighting abilities. Overall, the pirates look down on the bandits.
Captain Yeo-Wol is looking for new cannons & weapons that came from Europe & Arabia. Crazy Tiger then learns about why the Pirates are looking for ammunition. They want to hunt a whale that swallowed the Royal Seal sent by the Emperor of Ming.
Late at night at the bandits’ camp, Chul-Bong is telling the stories of his adventures at Sea. When Crazy Tiger arrives and shares the news about the whale hunt, Chul-Bong tries to explain that it’s not as easy as it seems. Whales are not regular fish but the bandits seem unable to believe that the whale is a large creature with his nose on his back with large eyes. Their goal is to catch the whale and retire for life.
The next day as Captain Yeo-Wol tries to get the ammunition she needs, Crazy Tiger gets in her way and they make a whole commotion through the village causing a grand explosion. At one point, Crazy Tiger protects the captain from getting hit by arrows. The captain finds a wanted pamphlet with the real name of Crazy Tiger.
FROM THE BANDITS TO THE PIRATES
Crazy Tiger keeps believing that hunting the whale is a possible task as they get a small ship and sail into the sea. In the meantime, Captain Yeo-Wol is testing the new ammunition to catch the whale. We then see that Captain Sa-Mo is still alive and is getting the fastest ship of the sea.
Meanwhile, after a while at sea Crazy Tiger & his bandits are all thirsty. Chul-Bong warns them not to drink seawater. Then they are attacked by a shark who they think is the whale they are looking for. Chul-Bong tries to explain to them that they are all wrong but they don’t listen to him. They try to catch the shark in many ways. Once they seem to have caught it, it drags the boat at high speed crossing paths with Captain Sa-Mo.
The event makes them go back to the shore when they finally realize that they were mistaken and somehow, they manage to destroy their small ship. Crazy Tiger wants to go back to Sea and they all decide to steal a naval ship.
Chul-Bong gives Crazy Tiger a plan on how to execute but is tired as no one listens to him. Crazy Tiger decides to give him the second rank. They execute their plan but Crazy Tiger doesn’t expect to come face to face with Mo Heung-Gap again. The end result is that the bandits got the ship but left significant damage behind.
Mo Heung-Gap decides to put the blame on the pirates who supposedly stole the Royal Seal. The next thing we see is an army of Royal soldiers attacking a village, a pirate village, but all we see is common villagers being mercilessly attacked.
In the meantime, the pirates finally found the whale, they recognize it as it has a wooden pole with a flag stuck on its back, but it’s accompanied by a baby whale. They hesitate to exchange the life of a newborn for the life of people seeing how they believe that whales are divine majestic creatures but Captain Yeo-Wol decides to attack it. Right at that moment, they are attacked by Captain So-Ma.
We then see Crazy Tiger & his crew on the ship they stole. Chul-Bong is trying to give them instructions on how to sail properly but he is just getting more frustrated at their ignorance at sea. He asks Crazy Tiger how he plans to catch the whale when there are so many whales at sea.
His plan is to keep hunting until they find the one they are looking for. Chul-Bong tries to explain how stupid his plan is. Then a whale appears next to their ship. Chul-Bong is happy that they finally got to see a real whale. However, everyone gets mad at him for not telling them and Crazy Tiger demotes him to the lowest rank again.
SURVIVING THE SEAS
Back with Captain Yeo-Wol and Captain So-Ma, we see their ships aligned with each crew facing each other. Right at that moment unknowingly to Crazy Tiger & his crew who were all taken lying down, their ship comes right in between the two ships.
A fight starts and Captain So-Ma wins. Captain Yeo-Wol and Crazy Tiger are handcuffed to each other. Rather than being forced into the sea Captain Yeo-Wol willingly jumps taking Crazy Tiger with her. Their crews are taken as prisoners.
A flashback is shown of little Yeo-Wol liberating a younger version of the whale they are after. We recognize the whale by some marks it has. At that time, Yeo-Wol had an armband with little bells that made a distinctive sound that the whale remembers. The same whale is shown seeing Yeo-Wol and Crazy Tiger sinking in the ocean.
We then see Yeo-Wol and Crazy Tiger lying on the shore. Crazy Tiger wakes up and carries a sick Yeo-Wol into the forest and eventually finds a cave that they use as shelter. He makes herbal medicine for her wounds. In the meantime, back at the ship, both imprisoned crews are fighting each other verbally. Yeo-Wol regains consciousness.
Captain So-Ma tells Mo Heung-Gap his plan to capture the whale in 2 days. The plan is to attack the baby whale first as the mother never leaves it alone. Heuk-Myo is shown bounded. The captain is planning to use her as a sacrifice to appease the anger of the Sea God since he believes whales are angels sent by the Sea God.
In the meantime, Yeo-Wol and Crazy Tiger try to live together. Crazy Tiger sees the armband and asks her about it. After they share their past with each other Crazy Tiger proposes to Yeo-Wol. She completely ignores it.
Then they see Crazy Tiger’s ship arriving at the shore, with one of Crazy Tiger’s crew members, the monk, who went to hide on the ship during the fight against Captain So-Ma. The crew is lined up for sentencing.
Chul-Bong is getting frustrated and starts to argue with the soldier in charge. Yeo-Wol and Crazy Tiger arrive and save their crews. Captain Suma seems to have left the ship only to a few Royal soldiers. Ye-Wol recognizes Chul-Bong and wishes him well. Captain Yeo-Wol and Crazy Tiger part ways.
Back on land, Crazy Tiger & crew arrive at the supposedly pirate village where the soldiers kill all the men and take all the children. Seeing the devastation Crazy Tiger decides to go back to sea and gives Chul-Bong the second rank again.
Back with Captain So-Ma and Mo Heung-Gap, they finally find the whale and Mo Heung-Gap wants to attack it. Captain So-Ma establishes his authority and tells Mo Heung-Gap that they will attack the baby as planned.
They aim the harpoon at the baby whale but the mother gets in the way and they drag it to the ship. They wait until it’s close to the ship and start to attack it with cannons. Mo Heung-Gap orders to pull up the whale. Captain So-Ma stops him and instructs him to prepare the girl for sacrifice as he sees a large storm coming which in his mind means that the Sea God is starting to show his anger.
Captain So-Ma tells Mo Heung-Gap to not do anything stupid as he has set explosives on the ship to blow them all up. They are suddenly attacked by Captain Yeo -Wol who cuts the ropes attaching the mother whale to the ship. As the whale sinks into the sea, we see how it slowly dies. They all then hear a howling sound. Crazy Tiger is coming to assist Captain Yeo-Wol.
What follows is the battle between Captain So-Ma and Captain Yeo-Wol Yeo-Wol wins and So-Ma tells her that the ship is going to explode. Crazy Tiger and Mo Heung-Gap starts to fight but Yeo-Wol alerts everyone that the ship will explode. Crazy Tiger tells Mo Heung-Gap to go to hell and apologize to the friend he killed. The ship explodes with Captain So-Ma and Mo Heung-Gap on board.
Crazy Tiger visits King Yi Seong-Gye at night. Thing King is the same superior he opposed when he has a soldier years ago. He asked the King since Emperor Ming gave the name Joseon to the new country if he was a citizen of Emperor Ming then. He doesn’t want to be part of such a country.
A whale swallowing the Royal Seal is heaven’s warning against ruling under Emperor Ming’s influence. Even a whale risks its life to save its baby. How can a king sacrifice his people to get a Ming seal of approval?
He asks him to think about what world he’ll create. If he creates a country for the people, he will consider him as his King. The next day the King asks the Royal Court members for an explanation and gives the order to send home all the children they captured to be offered to Emperor Ming. He orders them to renegotiate or he would send their own children as an offering to Ming.
We then see the following texts on screen: Yi Seong-Gye founded Joseon in 1392. The Royal Seal was received from Ming in 1403. For 10 years after Joseon’s founding a temporary seal called “Joseon’s Royal Seal” was used.
The after-credits start while showing Chul-Bong giving orders on the ship. Captain Yeo-Wol and Crazy Tiger are shown together embracing while looking at the rising sun on the horizon while the baby whale makes an appearance in the distance
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE PIRATES
The story is kept simple and easy to follow as 3 factions pursue the whale and the seal: The mercenaries employed by the Royal Court, The Pirates incentivized by the mercenaries, and the bandits incentivized by the pirates.
The acting is good, and the humor works for me. The action is nicely choreographed with impressive visuals. The swordwork and fighting skills were really good. Especially the female lead who actively participated in the action.
The combination of a little history with fantasy makes the story quite original. The fantasy element gives the flexibility to stay away from accuracy so it doesn’t have to be realistic.
I liked how Yeo-Wol starts alone and is not interested in love. She has earned her position being a woman and has learned to deal with overconfident men. However, due to her life experiences and her position as a pirate, she never thought about love and family. Even though Jang Sa-Jung a.k.a Crazy Tiger annoys her, he gains her affections through actions. Actions that are valued by her.
Considering the budget, the cinematography and the special effects were more than decent, the acting was good, the sight gags and some of the dialogues were downright hilarious, the sets and costumes looked great, and above all, the action scenes were nothing short of spellbinding. It is kind of amazing to see how much they did with the budget they had.
GIVING “THE PIRATES” A CHANCE
Giving it a chance is very easy. I was familiar with the leads from watching them in K-Dramas: The female lead acted in 2010 Personal Taste and 2019 Cash Landing on You. The male lead was in 2006 Lovers and 2010 Bad Boy.
It looked like a fun film based on the trailer and the summaries on the various streaming platforms. I’ve learned watching foreign films that relying on online reviews is not the best option to determine whether you would watch a film or not. It depends on your own state of mind to watch foreign films understanding that the style of filmmaking and culture may be different.
PIRATES (2014) VS PIRATES: THE LAST ROYAL TREASURE (2022)
Any similarities between “The Pirates” (2014) and Pirates: The Last Royal Treasure (2022) seem to be just coincidental. Pirates: The Last Royal Treasure (2022) is supposed to be a sequel to “The Pirates” (2014) but it seems that they remove all that made the 2014 version great.
From the beginning, you could tell that the 2022 version was trying too hard to be at the level of “The Pirates” (2014) and failed miserably at it.
The love track of the main leads, Woo Moo-chi and Captain Hae-Rang, reaches teen levels sometimes unlike the mature and naturally developed relationship between Jang Sa-Jung and Captain Yeo-Wol.
The action sequences and physical fights are forgettable. There is more use of CGI than practical effects even for comedy. The penguins’ scene was really stupid. Mak-yi, the comedic relief turned into a complete clown incapable of doing his job, unlike Chul-Bong.
The 2022 is just a poor re-imagining of the 2014 version and is exclusively streaming only on Netflix which is very clever because if you first see the 2014 version you will be disappointed after watching the 2022 version. Overall, I think the “sequel” is missing the spirit of the original.
Haejeok: Badaro Gan Sanjeok or The Pirates is all about love, honor, tradition, comedy, and drama. It has a great cast, lots of action, adventure, kick-ass pirates, a hilarious band of bandits, nasty villains, comedy, romance, and a story about honor. It mixes true historical events with fantasy in an interesting way.
It can be a case study for anybody considering making an independent film about pirates that is more than the formulaic sequels of “The Pirates of the Caribbean” with a small budget of approximately 13 million US dollars.
The action is very cool, and the comedy is fantastic since I laughed myself silly many times. Although I think some of the characters are underwhelming, it is still entertaining enough to watch, and most of them are likable and funny. Chul-Bong did a good job as the comedic relief, especially by being the voice of reason that nobody listened to.
I’m so glad that I discovered this film since it’s a good change from the usual mainstream pirate films. Having the fantasy combined with Korean history and culture makes the property unique. Overall, the film is like a fascinating action-packed thrill ride that is both entertaining and fun.
All images in this publication belong to the original creators and are used as references under fair use.