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'Madame Pirate,' Film Project Based on Asia's Greatest Female Pirate, Sets Sail Again

Zheng Yi Zao “started as a prostitute, resisted the authority of the Qing emperor, kicked everyone’s bottom, and then got away with it... also she has been ignored by history,” explains Vietnam-based filmmaker and photographer Morgan Ommer for why Taiwan was interested in funding a two-part film that tells the story of the leader of the world's largest pirate fleet. 

Zheng Yi Zao, also romanized as Sheng I Sao (Trịnh Nhất Tẩu in Vietnamese), was born in 1775 in what is today's Guangdong Province, China. In 1801, she married a pirate named Zheng Yi, and when he died in 1807, Yi Zao took control of his force and continued to expand the fleet to roughly 400 ships and 60,000 pirates. Driven by money and power, they fought the 19th century's greatest powers which included the British East India Company, the Portuguese Empire and China's Qing Dynasty. They also played an important role in Vietnamese history as the pirates of whom she eventually took command were commissioned by Nguyễn Huệ and the Tây Sơn against the Qing Dynasty, helping to defeat the Chinese invasion of 1789.

“The greatest pirate of all time was not a middle-aged white man with a beard and a parrot on one shoulder. 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,” Ommer told Saigoneer in 2022 as the film's first part, Madame Pirate: Becoming a Legend, was preparing to screen at SXSW that year.

Official movie poster via Madame Pirate's Facebook page.

Now, nearly three years later, he is readying for SXSW once again, this time for the world premiere of part two, Madame Pirate: Code of Conduct. Ommer told Saigoneer via email: “Episode 1 told the story of how she became a pirate. Episode 2 tells the audience how Zheng Yi Zao was able to manage 70,000 ruthless pirates. She was an extraordinary leader, respected and obeyed by her people. The code of conduct is how she achieved this. The code of conduct protected women. We tell the story from the perspective of one of the captives who discovers a completely different society from the one she knows on land.”

Episode 2 will continue Zheng's narrative with Taiwanese actress Yi Ti Yao, again taking the lead and a similar blend of live-action sequences filmed using virtual reality (VR) technology and animated sequences that establish a fairy tale-esque vibe. A behind-the-scenes feature helps explain the process. For this interation, Ommer and his co-writer and co-director, Taiwanese filmmaker Dan-Chi Huang, used a technology called 4DViews, which allows viewers to walk around the actors during the performance. “It’s like being on stage in a play and be[ing] able to walk around the actors during the play,” Ommer explained. 

Madame Pirate's Episode 1 screened at SXSW in 2022. Photos via Madame Pirate's Facebook page.

Episode 1 enjoyed successful screenings at world-famous festivals including appearances at the Cannes Film Festival, Kaohsiung Film Festival and the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival. Ommer is hoping for a similar run for Episode 2 after the world premiere at SXSW. Readers interested in this novel approach to telling an intriguing story should keep a close eye on festival schedules near them and the film's Facebook page.

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