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'Madame Pirate,' Short Film Based on History's Greatest Pirate, Screens at SXSW

Do you know who the world's greatest pirate is?

Vietnam-based filmmaker and photographer Morgan Ommer has been immersed in the world of Cheng I Sao, who he argues was the greatest pirate in history, for years. Way back in 2015, Ommer worked on a short film called Under the Red Flag Banner about Cheng's life portrayed via cinemagraph.

Photo courtesy of Morgan Ommer.

Cheng I Sao, whose name can also be spelled Zheng Yi Sao (Trịnh Nhất Tẩu in Vietnamese) was born in 1775 in what is today Guangdong Province, China. In 1801, she married a pirate named Zheng Yi, and when he died in 1807, Cheng took control of his forces.

She went on to build a fleet of roughly 400 ships and led up to 60,000 pirates, who fought against global powers including the British East India Company, the Portuguese Empire and China's Qing Dynasty. As Ommer shares, Blackbeard, one of the most famous pirates in history, only commanded about 300 men at his peak. 

There's a Vietnam connection as well, as the pirates that Cheng eventually took command of trained as the navy for the Tây Sơn rebellion against the Qing Dynasty, helping to defeat the Chinese invasion of 1789. Once that war ended, the Vietnamese "sent these pirates packing, so they went back north and continued to fight the Qing," Ommer explains.

Certainly, then, a historical figure worthy of attention, and since 2015, Ommer's project has transformed significantly. Madame Pirate: Becoming a Legend is now the first part of a two-episode short film, which Ommer is co-writing and co-directing with Taiwanese filmmaker Dan-Chi Huang.

Photo courtesy of Morgan Ommer.

And the filmmaking has gone well beyond the cinemagraph form, with live-action sequences filmed using virtual reality (VR) technology mixed with animated tilt-brush scenes, creating a fairy tale version of history. You can learn more about these techniques through a behind-the-scenes featurette.

"VR is an emerging technology, and in essence, it is experimental filmmaking," Ommer tells Saigoneer. "It is difficult, but also you get to invent a language. We tried new techniques...basically, Madame Pirate allows viewers to move around inside a painting and/or the deck of a 19th-century pirate junk. The live action is also in 3D, so you feel like you can touch the pirates."

The live filming has taken place in Taiwan, with funding largely from the Kaohsuing Film Archive. Madame Pirate: Becoming a Legend debuted at the Kaohsuing International Film Festival, and even bigger news followed. "On December 31, 2021, we learned that we had been selected to join SXSW," Ommer says. "This was amazing news."

SXSW, short for South by Southwest, is an annual film, interactive media and music festivals held in Austin, Texas. "The film's producer, Estela Valdivieso Chen, happened to be in the US in March, and she attended SXSW," he goes on. "We set up a booth and for three days, Madame Pirate was showcased." 

The Madame Pirate: Becoming a Legend booth at SXSW. Photos via the Madame Pirate Facebook page.

This was the first time the film had been shown to a live audience, as the Kaohsiung Film Festival had been almost entirely virtual. And the feedback was positive, with viewers commending the innovative mix of live-action and tableaux-like paintings. But for Ommer, the story is really what draws people in.

"The greatest pirate of all time was not a middle-aged white man with a beard and a parrot on one shoulder," he says. "The most successful pirate in history was an Asian woman who started from nothing, built an empire and then retired. Not many people know that, even in Asia. Audiences at SXSW were eager to hear more about Madame Pirate."

And more is on the way, with work on episode two — called Secret Diary — now underway. Filming will take place this summer, with the team aiming for appearances at the next Sundance and Venice film festivals, and perhaps another visit to SXSW in 2023. "The story of episode two reveals how [Ching] was able to rule over 70,000 ruthless pirates and defeat the Qing imperial fleet, the British, the Portuguese and capture US ships — and get away with it," Ommer shares. 

Check out the trailer for Madame Pirate: Becoming a Legend below.

Video via Serendipity Films' YouTube channel.