In spite of the swashbuckling promise of its title, The Pirates of Bubuan has far more in common with The Wizard of Oz than anything you’ve seen featuring a dreadlocked Johnny Depp. Its focus is a tiny island community in the Philippines, haunted by the specter of a pirate king rumored to reside with a band of outlaws on another island out toward the horizon. In between the two, a third community occupies a cluster of communal homes on stilts over the water and lives in perpetual fear of both of its neighbors. Before revealing the “man behind the curtain,” Imamura delivers over half an hour of classical ethnographic exploration into the daily routines of these simple fisherfolk, who make enough money to purchase necessities by pulling squid out of the sea but limit their worldly possessions lest the pirates come to plunder.
The members of Imamura’s film crew frequently appear onscreen in colorful short shorts toting boom mics and tripods. They seem oblivious to the possibility that their entrance into this delicate interinsular tension could have any consequence other than a good television special. Our sonorous narrator assures us that the islands are “geographically similar” to Japan, as if to put the audience at ease. Much of the film consists of fieldwork style interviews, but any foreign dialog is dubbed over in Japanese, oftentimes using antiquated or hokey rural accents. The conspicuousness of this dubbing creates an incongruity of mouth and speech that would be forgivable for a romantic comedy, but in an ethnographic film is just as bad as handing out costumes or constructing an exotic soundstage.
Although The Pirates of Bubuan opens with gunshots over the water amid a hazy carmine sunrise, the film closes with a cordial and rather domestic encounter between the film crew and the so-called pirate king, who in fact lives in relative comfort with his wife and her extended family on a lush, shady island. His wife keeps a vegetable garden, from which she picks a few select eggplants onscreen for the film crew’s dinner. The last frames are of a sundown much like the sunrise, over the same red water, with more gunshots but without a single body lost.
Like much ethnographic cinema, The Pirates of Bubuan teaches us as much about the obsessions and habits of the people who produced it as those of the people it attempts to capture. At a time when Japan is doing little to ease tensions with its Asian neighbors and could benefit from a friendly intervention, it may be time for a sequel, or perhaps a parody—but wasn’t that called The Life Aquatic?
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