Historical epics are to the South Korean box office what superhero movies are to ours, and as of this writing more than 7 million people have seen Lee Seok-hoon's The Pirates -- nearly 15 percent of the country's entire population. It's easy to see why. Set in 1388, the fabulistic adventure is about the efforts of several warring factions to retrieve the emperor's royal seal (and the attendant bounty) after it's literally swallowed by a whale. Our introduction to the majestic leviathan is all but silent, the scar above its eye letting us know that humans have encountered this creature before and giving a sense of how any future interactions might play out.
Lee has studied the swashbuckling playbook, and though The Pirates is hardly Ahab and the white whale, it does prove more diverting than the last few installments of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. This is especially true of scenes involving the CG sea beast, less so when costumed officials are debating matters of state. Everything else is passable, if unexceptional, with the central mission mostly being interesting for its striking underwater photography rather than the human stakes involved; nothing exposes the pettiness of man's foibles quite like the beauty of the natural world, which almost always loses out in the end.