In 2008 my wife was approached in the street by a couple of Koreans offering their business cards and a small part in a Hollywood movie (for our nine-month-old daughter). I thought that all sounded rather dodgy, and that she shouldn’t encourage random nut-jobs in the street.
As it turned out, the proposition was legit. I’d been under the misguided assumption that getting roles in Hollywood films involved slightly more effort. The next morning at work I discovered that three guys in my office had been offered work on the same movie. Apparently, every white person who’d been in Seoul’s Itaewon district the day before had been offered a part.
I did a bit of research. This was to be the first mainstream Hollywood movie filmed (at least in part) in South Korea, billed as a sequel to the Chris Farley 1996 train-wreck, Beverly Hills Ninja. The New York Times had reported that Farley relapsed into drug and alcohol abuse after reading “a particularly terrible rewrite” of Beverly Hills Ninja and died shortly after. Though not universally panned, even those who spared a few positive words for Farley’s final film later questioned the justification for a sequel.
It seemed my daughter was to feature in this new movie (for a couple of seconds) as an orphaned baby boy, who would grow up to become a legendary dancing ninja (for some reason). The teenage dancing ninja would then go on to battle a super-villain named ‘Ansel La-Douche’, to be played by the one and only David Hasselhoff!
Every thing about this looked absolutely dreadful. I couldn’t have been prouder.
The time came for our one-hour flight to Jeju Island. We strolled around for a while, through the older part of Jeju City, then to Sanjicheon Stream, and into the wonderfully surreal and unjustifiably self-important world of a Hollywood movie set.
“I can’t believe what passes for security around here!” exclaimed the director’s assistant, introducing herself happily. She was watching a drunk local businessman who in a moment of clarity had decided that the yellow police tape was no serious obstacle and had staggered on set for a closer look. The man was quickly met by another, younger Korean man who, in a flurry of slight bows gently steered his elder back in the direction from which he had come.
We soon met the director, head editor and a few others who were all very friendly and relaxed. I hadn’t known what to expect but was surprised at how down-to-earth they all seemed. Oddly enough, the people who were far too busy and important to speak with us were the ones whose names would appear much lower in the credits.
At a snack table on set I couldn’t see any water so I asked a man standing there where we might find some. He didn’t understand so I asked again. Still, he didn’t understand. I asked once more in Korean.
Ok… “Water, is ther…”
“TALK to me,” snapped the very important man, whose job apparently was to guard the snack table. I wasn’t aware that people used phrases like that in the real world, then remembered that this was not the real world. I realised it was my Australian accent he couldn’t decipher so, I asked clearly once more. He sighed loudly before opening the lid of a cooler before storming off to shout at some other people, perhaps about the cheese.
Eric Tsang stood calmly in the middle of a sea of people, waiting to shoot the scene. I recognised his face. He was relaxed and friendly.
“He is a very famous star in Honk Kong,” said some passing guy.
“He is very famous! Just like Jackie Chan!” said another couple. Perhaps we didn’t look appropriately star-struck. Several more times we’d hear that this guy was the very famous actor from Hong Kong (who is not Jackie Chan). I wondered just how much this guy might really fucking hate Jackie Chan. He casually turned to smile and wave at a dozen telescopic lenses trained on him from a nearby bridge.
The crew wasn’t yet ready, so we got out of the way. Perhaps it was because we had been seen chatting with the director and the very famous star from Hong Kong, but suddenly the locals’ cameras turned on us.
First there were just a couple, then soon about about twenty middle-aged Korean women, and a couple of men, all shouting and waving.
“Baby! Baby! Over here! Over here!” they yelled, as if my infant child might oblige them with a quick pose. I took a few pictures of people taking pictures of my daughter and wondered aloud why life is so weird.
The scene went remarkably well we were told, with smiles and handshakes. My daughter’s six seconds of screen time had taken only half an hour to shoot, which apparently was some kind of record. The next morning we walked again along the stream. The hundreds of people had vanished, and taken their ancient fish market with them. I could see clearly why even crappy movies cost tens of millions of dollars to make.
Back in Seoul we soon heard that with 30 percent of shooting completed, production was shut down and the director fired from the project. The film would not be completed, and we never did meet The Hoff.
What we didn’t know, for almost another decade, that the director did in fact win a court case against a consortium of Korean financiers, and that the movie HAD been made!
Here is the revised official trailer for the completed film, Dancing Ninja, which inexplicably features no dancing, no martial arts, nor any sight of the co-star, Hoff. My then-baby daughter is in it though. I have to find a copy of this movie, which currently has an impressively terrible rating of 4.4 on IMDB.
It’s not difficult for foreigners in Korea to land jobs as extras (or speaking roles) in film and television. I often used to see friends and acquaintances on Korean TV, including myself a couple of times.
If you’re curious about doing some film or TV, a friend’s account of a twelve-hour Korean shoot is here.