…Written by Pookabazooka… I was quite pleased when 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, as “a killer”. 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’ll start from the top.
After sending a picture and my stats (height, weight, ethnicity, blood-type, kimchi tolerance etc.) in answer to a random mass text, I received an email from a guy called Rashad, asking me to be at a Seoul subway station at 2:00 the following morning. Sure, why not? Arriving home from work at 7:00 that evening I took a nap before heading out again at midnight. It was an easy journey and I arrived 40 minutes early. 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. I had no idea what the movie was about or what my role would be exactly. I imagined being 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 relaxed me, but did nothing to remind me that movie extras, by definition, do not speak.
At 2:00am 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.
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, 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, 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 catch some Zs. No chance, considering every vehicle in Korea has a dash-mounted GPS monitor constantly beeping and shouting oddly pointless directions in Korean every five seconds (“after five hundred meters, keep driving for eighty kilometers”). Three hours later we pulled into some little roadside restaurant. Kim No Speak opened his door and got out. I did the same but 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 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 Russian accents. Turns out they were all from Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan…
Onward again, and the road now deteriorated, but the scenery was simply beautiful. Huge, green mountains with sharp peaks 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. A parking lot was already crowded 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, and pointed to the stacks of dusty books, which sadly served 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 introduced herself as Crystal, and was friendly and 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 Crystal to take my picture. She said photos were not allowed during production. I went for a walk. 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. I really didn’t know.
Someone gave me an Uzi. I mean, a fuckin’ Uzi! It was the real deal, minus the parts that would enable it to make holes in people, 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 resulting.
I was sent across a make-shift tin-scrap bridge over a sinkhole, to a rickety flight of iron stairs to the roof of one of the buildings. I knew 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 sun. I’d learned before the hard way… as a bald man, this would not bode 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, pacing back and forth angrily atop the building, scouring the surrounding mountains for an imaginary enemy. 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 joked and 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, whoever that was. 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”). There came a high-pitched buzzing noise. I didn’t look. I paced angrily back and forth, clutching my Uzi and keeping watch. The helicopter cam buzzed around like a giant neon-green horse fly for a few minutes, and then… “Cut!” I let my guard down, but only for a moment. Three more times we did it, then I was called off the roof to get some water and shade.
I strolled into the building I had been so fervently guarding to find a big, very fake rocket. It finally 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 a bad guy I suddenly found a new sense of camaraderie with my Eastern European co-workers (go figure). Apparently a few of the Russians and the Kyrgyzstan fellow had worked together before. Another American was also there, apparently the leader of our bad-guy cabal. He was standing by the rocket, showing one of the Korean girls a video on his phone. It was a viral video made 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. 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 our hostage (I didn’t mind the view). 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 burning in the hot sun. Not good.
Eventually I was back on the ground, and in the shade. Time drags for a movie extra, but I love people-watching. Were any of these Korean actors famous? I had no 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.