…Written by Pookabazooka… I’m an English teacher in South Korea who has recently been self-diagnosed with an extremely rare condition called ‘Sleep-spending’. As such I was quite pleased when by pure chance I was recently offered a role as an extra in a new movie being shot here in the ROK. In exchange for the princely sum of about US$100 I agreed to spend my Saturday doing… certain things… somewhere. All I can say at this point is that my ass really hurts and my knees are scraped up pretty badly. Ok, that doesn’t sound good. I guess I should start from the top.
A random text on Friday morning (which surely was not intended for me) enquired whether I know any foreigners willing to play “a killer” in a movie for some extra cash. Of course I volunteered myself for the part. She asked me to send a picture and my stats (height, weight, ethnicity, blood-type, kimchi tolerance etc.). Shortly after I received an email from a guy calling himself Rashad, asking me to be at a Seoul subway station at 2:00 the following morning. Sure, why not? I’m usually awake at that hour and it wasn’t too far from my apartment. Arriving home from work at 7:00 that evening I tried to get a few hours of sleep before heading out again at midnight. I thought I’d give myself plenty of time to find Sinsa station but it was an easy journey and I arrived 40 minutes early. So, of course I wandered into a local pub for a pint and a shot, figuring it might toughen up my voice a little, in case of some “killer” dialogue. Plus it would help relax me. At this point I still had no idea what the movie was about or what my role would be exactly. I imagined I may be in a Korean prison, being ordered to tell the police where all the bodies are. I imagined lines like “You’ll never find those bodies, copper! Not ALL of them! (maniacal laughter).” The pint of beer and shot of whiskey did in fact relax me, but did nothing to remind me that movie extras, by definition, do not speak.
At 2:00a.m. I was standing outside exit 6 as instructed, trying to look like a “killer” (not a bad idea at that time of night at a random subway exit, even in Seoul). Two other foreign guys were also loitering nearby. Soon a Korean guy walked up to each of us and said something in Korean with the word “movie” in it, so we followed him to his SUV. I said to one of the other foreigners, “So we’re being kidnapped.” He laughed nervously. I tried to lighten the mood. “Ah, well, I hear North Korea’s doing a lot better these days, what with their amusement parks and such.” (Kim Jong Un does apparently enjoy a good roller coaster ride).
The young Korean guy said precisely nothing as we piled into the SUV and sped off into the night. The recruiter texted me reassuringly though, asking me whether I’d made the rendezvous safely and on time, and asked me to send her a picture of me in character. I replied, rather politely I thought, that I had no idea who or what my character was exactly, and that I was currently being driven through Seoul with three strange men to an undisclosed location. The reply came immediately. “OK, it is a four-hour drive to the shoot.” Four hours?!
I was in the front seat next to Kim No Talk, and decided to try and catch some Zs (I’d only managed about 30 minutes at home after work). No chance, especially considering every vehicle in Korea has a dash-mounted GPS monitor constantly making bling-bling sounds and shouting pointless (and occasionally fucked up) directions in Korean every five seconds (“after five hundred meters, keep driving for eighty kilometers,” or some such). Three hours later we pulled into some little roadside restaurant. Kim No Speak opened his door and got out. I was about to do the same when he turned and said, “No. Wait. Sleep. One hour.” This was the first and only thing he’d said since ostensibly kidnapping us in Seoul. The guys in the back had their seats reclined all the way and were making the best of things, so I tried to curl up into the fetal position, wedged somewhere between the glove-box and the arm rest, and tried to sleep. What felt like four minutes later, Kim Say Zilch was back, and said, “OK…” He was no longer alone.
We all trudged into the little restaurant and sat on the floor to enjoy some kimchi soup (a Korean favourite, this meal of cabbage, boiled with all manner of strong spices and weird exotic pungencies – apparently to disguise the fact that the actual cabbage has already been fermenting for several months – isn’t really as bad as it sounds) and several other weird side-dishes that you don’t see much in the city these days: various weeds, fish heads, crab eyes in spicy sauce… Looking around I noticed other foreigners wearing military gear, and wondered out loud what branch of the military they might be attached to. Too exhausted at this stage to realize that they were also part of the cast, I failed to notice that the subdued laughter at the table was at my expense, and we returned to our rotting cabbage in silence.
It wasn’t until I stood up, realized my entire left side had in fact managed to get some sleep, and fell straight down again – through the unfortunately positioned little waitress and into the collection of shoes that reside at the door of every traditional Korean restaurant – that I realized this ragtag assembly of hipsters, tough guys, SWAT team members and one lone Korean supermodel in stretch pants (all now quietly watching me while casually dining on the various things looking back at them) were probably not the usual breakfast regulars.
Waiting outside I was gradually joined by some of the other foreign guys; they were speaking English with what sounded like Russian accents. Turns out they were all from Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan… hey, I was a Cold War American baby – they’re all Russians to me! Nice fellas, though.
Onward again, but the road soon became very rocky, bumpy and generally shitty, but the scenery was simply beautiful. Huge, green mountains with sharp peaks were juxtaposed by deep, narrow valleys and a sky of deep azure blue with an occasional big, happy, fluffy cloud (not your average sky over Seoul). The GPS had a seizure when we turned again onto some goat-track leading up the side of some mountain. There was a parking lot a little further up, already bustling with buses and trucks.
We were hustled down a hill to a big old abandoned factory and into a large, dirty room littered with rubble, and piles and piles of dusty old books. Without a glance, a bored-looking Korean lady handed me a military outfit, boots and all, and pointed to the stacks of dusty books, which sadly were serving greater purpose than they had in years, as a changing-room wall. I found my place behind the moldy stacks, put on the commando garb… and it fit. Perfectly! Even the boots! I had a bit of trouble with the body armor, but miss Supermodel Stretchy-pants was there. She told me her name was Crystal (ah,ha) and she was quite helpful. She told me that my backpack thingy was actually for the front, and she put on my knee-pads. Oh, how fucking important these things would turn out to be!
Once in costume I asked Hot Pants… I mean Crystal… to take my picture with my cell phone. She told me pictures were not allowed during production. So I went for a bit of a walk, which revealed not so much an abandoned factory, but an abandoned mining operation. The large buildings all around were of solid construction, with lots of outdoor metal staircases and broken glass everywhere. I was hoping for some steam turbines or things that pointlessly shoot flames at nothing in particular – I guessed the crew would take care of those. It did look just right for that final shootout with your arch nemesis.
Even at 8:00am it was getting hot, especially under three layers of commando gear. I assumed we were near Busan and the East Sea, considering how far we had driven.
Someone gave me an Uzi. I mean, a fuckin’ Uzi! It was the real deal, except of course, all the parts that would enable it to make holes in people and stuff, which I guess made it no more an Uzi than my nephew’s water pistol… but I enjoyed squeezing the trigger to hear the empty KLAK! of the chamber, and was comforted by the lack of death that resulted.
I was ordered to walk across a make-shift tin-scrap bridge over what looked like a sinkhole, up a rickety flight of iron stairs to the roof of one of the buildings. I remember thinking my insurance wouldn’t cover any mishaps resulting anywhere near this shit. This roof would become my own seventh ring of Hell over the next several hours. It was HOT up there now, in the direct sunlight. Bald heads don’t like direct sunlight (I’d already learned this the hard way in Thailand, and had sworn never again). Oh well.
The stage director spoke very little English but did his best to let me know he was happy to have me there. I was to pretend to be on guard duty. I was to pace back and forth angrily atop the building, scouring the surrounding mountains for an imaginary enemy – who could be anywhere! Gesturing into the open air he said, “Helicopter cam. No see!” Got it. Don’t look at the helicopter. I was excited. I felt cool in all that oppressive heat, sporting my cool commando gear and an Uzi. I attempted another joke. I said, “So, like this?” and smiled and waved as if at a helicopter cam. He laughed and said, “No, no, no! No see!” I nodded. He knew I understood.
So we waited, as movie extras tend to do. My Eastern European friends were on the ground below me, also keeping watch for the enemy – who could be anywhere! They had rifles with scopes on them. Personally, I thought… if you’ve got a guard with a rifle and scope, and a guard with an Uzi… who would you put on the fucking rooftop? But hey, I’ve never made a movie. We waited. The guys below looked up and spotted me, so we pretended to shoot at each other, and laughed nervously until we heard the radios: Silence! Ready positions! And…. ACTION! (all in Korean except the word “Action,” which in Korean is probably “Action”). From behind the massive tower of iron stairs came a high-pitched buzzing sound. I didn’t look. I paced angrily back and forth, clutching my Uzi and keeping watch. The helicopter cam was a neon-green and pink remote-controlled device that buzzed around us like a giant horse fly for a few minutes, and then… “Cut!” I let my guard down, but only for a moment. They repeated this process three more times, then I was called down off the roof to catch some shade.
I strolled into the building I had been so fervently guarding to find a big, very fake rocket. Until that moment it hadn’t even dawned on me: We were the bad guys! Well, of course: we were the foreigners! The good guys were surely the Koreans in the black spec-ops military gear.
As it became clear that I was the bad guy I suddenly found a new sense of camaraderie with my Eastern-accented co-workers (go figure). Apparently a few of the Russians and the Kyrgyzstan fellow had worked together before. Another American was also there, apparently as the leader of our bad-guy cabal. He was standing by the rocket, showing one of the Korean girls a video on his iPhone. I recognized the tune, which had been recorded a couple of years previously by some friends of mine. They were watching and laughing, so I decided to join in. “Ah, the E.V. Boys! They’re friends of mine. We used to work together when they wrote that song”.
“Yeah?” he replied, and went back to the video. Apparently I had not yet earned sufficient chops as an actor to speak to him. I sauntered away chuckling quietly to myself. Not being a member of the “in” crowd was not new territory for me. There was only so much time to kill anyway. It was time again for work.
We were mustered into the room next to the rocket, where we found the lovely young Korean actress. She was (wait for it)… the Hostage. Led by my fellow American, we were to escort our sexy hostage through the rubble to an adjoining, equally depressing building, all the while scanning for The Enemy – who could be anywhere! Actually, they were over in the shade by a large drainage pipe eating kimchi.
I took my place among the bad guys, standing behind the hostage (which I didn’t object to at all). The director yelled impatiently that I take my correct position on the roof, to resume pacing back and forth; to acquire sunstroke and continue looking angry (this would prove an increasingly easy task). The child introduced to me as the Stage Manager told me I was “very important!” Back up to the hot tar roof I went. Silence! Ready positions, and… ACTION! And again. And again. My folically challenged dome was starting to burn in the hot sun. Not good.
Eventually I was back downstairs in the shade with the freedom to relax and watch the activity around me. It was only 11:00 and time was dragging, but I love people-watching, and decided to revel in the job of being an ‘extra’, which basically means a lot of standing around. I was happy I had come. Were any of these Korean actors famous? I had no fucking idea. The good guys tended to stay away from the bad guys. Even at lunch, they would eat in one building and we in another, though we all got our lunches from the same truck. The crew would choose sides and eat wherever they liked. Soon I was called back to the hottest tar-covered roof on Earth. This time, I would be going to my death.