Yaksha: Ruthless Operations, The Pirates: The last Royal treasure, and The Northman.
A pretty good week, overall, as it includes two very solid South Korean blockbusters and a mesmerizing Viking revenge saga.
Yaksha: Ruthless Operations was co-written and directed by Na Hyeon (with An Sang-hoon being listed as a co-writer) and it stars Sol Kyung-Gu, Park Hae-Soo, and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi. It’s a spy-action-thriller centered on Kang-In – whose nickname is Yaksha in reference to a ghost that harasses and kills people – who is a secret intelligence operator that is a maverick and does what needs to be done to finish the job regardless of laws or morality, and Han Ji-Hoon a prosecutor who follows the laws regardless of the consequences. Ji-Hoon’s ambition will land him with a demotion to China, where Kang-In is stationed and the duo’s contrasting ideals will be tested and put against each other, in an attempt to fight against a conspiracy. Yaksha is one of those movies that doesn’t manage to leave the audience with a clear idea of what the movie wanted to be; at times it tries to be a tense, cat-and-mouse, spy flick; often it attempts to build suspense and anxiety as a thriller should; occasionally, it bursts into high adrenaline action with big set-pieces, shoutouts, and more. Often, I find this dichotomy a flaw (at least when the movie doesn’t manage to merge its disparate parts into something cohesive), but with Yaksha it is its only major flaw and the parts are good enough that I still recommend the movie. As a spy flick, there isn’t enough guesswork or paranoia built into the audience, but solid performances and a story that is paced and delivered at a satisfying speed, allow those parts to be serviceable. As a thriller, the dynamism and chemistry of the two leads work brilliantly for the most part and the core conflict of ideals creates a fun adventure that is filled with great dialogue writing and top performances. As an attempt at being South Korean’s cinema answer to Mission Impossible, the action is pretty good; it does not have the star power or the impressive stunts of Mission Impossible, but it provides some brilliantly directed sequences and an Asian approach to set pieces that I found to be a great alternative nonetheless. Na Hyeon and the cinematographer (couldn’t find their name, apologies) showcase these elements with beautiful cinematography and a commitment to their inspirations while providing something new. My major issue is that the parts don’t fully mix into one movie and the ending feels rushed or “Westernized” as it builds towards a brutal South Korean ending, but ends up scrapping that and hastily building towards a safer conclusion that left me disappointed; overall, a good South Korean blockbuster that hopefully will have a chance to right its wrongs in the future.
From South Korea’s answer to Mission Impossible to its answer to Pirates of the Caribbean, The Pirates: The last Royal treasure was directed by Kim Jeong-hoon, written by Chun Sung-li, and stars Kang Ha-neul and Han Hyo-joo. A spiritual successor to 2014’s The Pirates, the movie follows Woo Moo-chi, a bandit leader seeking refuge on pirate captain Hae-Rang’s ship, when they learn of a Royal treasure and start seeking it, in an action-comedy adventure that is surprisingly funny, predictably bad in its writing and characters, yet ultimately worthwhile due to its incredible Asian action set-pieces and scenes. This is one of those movies where the story and characters are actively ruining the experience since the protagonist (Woo Moo-chi) starts off as an attempt at a ‘scoundrel with a heart of gold’ and quickly deteriorates into an annoying character that everybody seems to like and fall in love with for no apparent reason, with the only redeeming aspect being the great performances by the actors bringing these characters to life – especially Han Hyo-joo as Hae-Rang who manages to act her way beyond the caricature of her character into a badass pirate that is a joy to watch. Having said that, the comedy that the movie manages to pull is the most surprising element; it is clearly inspired by the ludicrous mishaps of its Western counterpart, but it injects them with more silliness and goofiness, making them for a very specific crowd but that crowd will find plenty of laughs. Beyond the comedy and the story, The Pirates: The last Royal treasure will please anyone looking for a good Asian action movie; there are so many great set-pieces, like a scene where pirates board another ship, an epic fight between two fierce rivals on top of a mountain with lighting falling down, and so many more. It is exciting to watch and moves at a fast pace where it glosses over a lot of opportunities to build character (thankfully) in order to get to the action and the comedy faster. Really enjoyed this one and would recommend it to Asian action junkies without hesitation.
Last, but certainly not least, The Northman is Robert Eggers’ third project after The Witch and The Lighthouse. Eggers directs, co-writes (alongside famed Icelandic poet Sjon), and produces this epic, Viking, revenge saga that stars co-producer Alexander Skarsgard, Anya Taylor-Joy, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke, Nikole Kidman, Bjork, and Willem Dafoe. It is based on the legend of Amleth, alongside several other Viking tales, and it tells the story of Amleth whose dad, King Aurvandill, is betrayed and killed by his uncle Fjolnir and Amleth must flee, swearing to avenge his father, rescue his captive mother, and reclaim his kingdom. For me, the easiest way to describe this movie is the Viking equivalent to Homer’s Odyssey in a literal sense. The movie starts with a plea to Odin to lent ear to this tale; it has a weird mix of realism and historically accurate details, alongside magical and fantastical elements. It is action-packed with great scenes of furious and brutal fights, raids, and duels, but (at its core) it is a slow-burn, character-driven story, with much slower-paced scenes and off-color moments to build the mood and the characters. It is the closest a movie can get to replicating what it would be like to sit in front of a poet and listen to these adaptations of folk tales, with built-in moments of tragic drama, epic fights, and lulls for the audience to catch their breaths. In those moments, Eggers proves why he is one of the most exciting talents in mainstream cinema; together with his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, they made one of the most striking movies of the year. It is filled to the brim with striking and memorable moments, without ever deviating from building scenes and providing those moments with context and meaning. Beyond those moments though is where The Northman excels; it takes a lot of work for a movie that has a lengthy village raid, several top-notch fight scenes, and a duel with two naked men, to still be considered a slow-burn drama centered on its characters, but Eggers and Sjorn managed to do that with their excellent writing. Unlike the previous movies in this article, The Northman has everything in a cohesive and brilliant whole and it benefits from that; brutal fight scenes and vicious kills are more impactful when you care about the story and the characters. A great shoutout must also go to the composers Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough who made a score so adaptable and brilliant that I would liken it to The Witcher 3’s score in that it made battles better, scenes have emotional impact and glued the entire experience together without ever feeling overbearing or secluded from the experience. Unfortunately, The Northman seems to be another critical and fan darling that won’t make its budget back, let alone profit, so if you get the chance to see it in theaters, I would urge you to do so; not only is it best suited for the big screen, but as audience members, we need to support the type of movies we would like to see more of, not just the biggest blockbusters.
It has been a good week for movies and I’ve left you with two good Asian blockbusters and an excellent (potentially special, but more time and viewing are needed to say that definitively) Viking revenge saga. Yaksha and The Pirates are streaming on Netflix and The Northman could still be playing in a theater near you, so do check them out and support the type (and quality) of movies you would like to see more of.