The First Hollywood Movie Almost Filmed in Korea

A fair bit of work for a few seconds of film.
“It’s funny how one day you aren’t famous, and the next day you are. Famous… and then you’re not any more” (Dale Kerrigan – The Castle).

One afternoon in 2008 my wife was approached in the street by a couple of young Korean guys who offered their business cards and a small part in a Hollywood movie (for our nine-month-old daughter). I arrived home from work to hear this exciting news and said I thought it all sounded very dodgy. Being stopped in the street by strangers offering Hollywood movie roles isn’t generally part of my daily routine (I’m not sure why), and I told my wife that there are all kinds of weirdos in the world and that she shouldn’t just trust every nut-job on the street (especially in Itaewon) who has a business card and says, “Hey baby, I’m from Hollywood! Let’s chat…”

As it turned out, the casting agency and whole proposition was legit. I had apparently been under the misguided assumption that getting roles in Hollywood films involved slightly more work than just walking down the street. We accepted their kind offer to allow us to rent our infant child to the entertainment industry, chatted over dinner that night about how our extended Korean adventure was completely failing to become less weird, and how much fun it might be to see our little girl in a movie.

Strangely enough, an overwhelming number of human couples truly believe their own offspring to be the most intelligent, talented, aesthetically pleasing miniature person(s) in the world. I gather there is a good reason for this (some genetic disposition to persist in nurturing these little creatures who repay us with extended periods of greatly diminished sleep, sex and money). Of course, not all parents can have the world’s most adorable little genius keeping them awake at night. That’s just absurd. Logic dictates that almost all parents are, perhaps albeit necessarily, deluding themselves. Imagine the immense pride I take from the astonishing good fortune that my wife and I are the lucky two individuals who are not. Naturally I’m thrilled. I mean, what were the odds?

The next morning at work I was slightly surprised and a little deflated to discover that three guys in my office had been offered work on the same movie. Apparently my initial assumption (regarding gaining small roles, or even being an extra in Hollywood movies involving slightly more than walking down the street) had been correct. To get work on this particular movie, you had to walk down the street whilst being white. I wondered just how many other babies’ parents were approached to test for the same part as my daughter (whatever that involved). We would happily discover later that the answer to that question was fifteen, from which ours was eventually chosen.

The cast and crew would be extremely happy that our child didn’t mind all the noise, lights and strangers everywhere, and for some reason was fine with being briefly locked in a dark trunk (perhaps because of all the noise, lights and strangers everywhere).

A bit of quick research revealed that the upcoming production would be the first mainstream Hollywood movie filmed in South Korea. It was also gaining attention from various industry blogs and forums, generating phrases like, ‘the least anticipated movie of next year’ and being described as ranking among the most unlikely and unnecessary sequels of all time. Possessing what I like to believe is a reasonably well-tuned sense of the ridiculous I could not have been prouder to discover that my little girl would be featuring (for a second or two) as an orphaned baby boy destined to become a legendary dancing ninja (played by a teen heart-throb/lip-synching expert from something called High School Musical, alongside the incomparable, inexplicable superstar David Hasselhoff, whose character’s name was to be Ansell La Douche – get it? get it?).

So, on a fine October morning, my family were picked up by the casting agency people, driven to the airport and flown to Jeju Island, just south of the peninsula. Koreans refer to their favourite domestic tourist destination as “Korea’s Hawaii”, which is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but it is a very nice place. We took a leisurely stroll around Jeju City and figured out that Jeju’s famous, world heritage listed natural wonders were somewhere else on the island.

Just some of the stunning scenery that is somewhere else on the island.

Soon it was time to get ready for the shoot. We strolled from our hotel through the older part of Jeju City, down to the Sanjicheon Stream, and into the wonderfully surreal and unjustifiably self-important world of a Hollywood movie set. We casually ducked beneath the yellow strip of tape that served as security (like that yellow police tape in the movies and crime shows). I guessed that in America this alone would probably not suffice.

Lanterns on Sanjicheon Stream, Jeju City. One of the shooting locations for the almost movie.

“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 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 politely and gently steered him 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.

My wife was thirsty so we went to a snack table nearby. 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. There was no way to tell whether he was Korean or American so I asked once more in Korean.

“Mul issoyo?”

“What?”

Ok, so I was right the first time.

“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, not for the first time, my non-native-English-speaking wife stepped in to provide the English to English translation. He sighed loudly before opening the lid of a cooler under the table before storming off to shout at some other people, perhaps about cheese. We wandered back through the mess of cables, scaffolding and weird, unidentifiable movie-making stuff into the ancient (yet very brightly lit) Chinese fish market to meet the actor who would be in the scene with our daughter.

A fair bit of work for a few seconds of film.

Eric Tsang stood calmly in the middle of a sea of people, waiting to shoot the scene. I recognised his face but couldn’t place him. Several people felt the need to tell us he was very famous. I wasn’t sure why. He was relaxed and friendly.

“He is a very famous star in Honk Kong,” said some passing guy carrying equipment.

“He is very famous! Just like Jackie Chan!” said another couple of people, apparently eager that we should look appropriately star-struck. During the course of the evening we heard several times that this guy was the very famous actor from Hong Kong (who is not Jackie Chan). I wondered just how much this guy might dislike Jackie Chan. He casually turned to smile and wave at a dozen telescopic lenses trained on him from a nearby bridge.

Actor Eric Tsang and the director look at a baby in a box.

The crew wasn’t yet ready, so we retreated to near the yellow tape where we’d been standing earlier. Whether it was because we had been seen chatting with the very famous star from Hong Kong, or whether it was a comment overheard and taken way out of context (our daughter had been described as the star of the scene by the director), suddenly the locals’ cameras turned on us.

This little scene quickly escalated.

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. It was pointless trying to explain that she was not a star (except perhaps to point out that she was nine months old, and that most people these days learn to speak before becoming movie stars). The little crowd who had breached the yellow tape to take some quick photos didn’t speak English any better than I spoke Korean. I figured I’d just take pictures of the people taking pictures of my daughter and wondered if somewhere in the world there were some people for whom everything makes perfect sense.

The scene went remarkably well we were told, meaning that my daughter’s two seconds of screen time took only half an hour to shoot, which apparently, judging by the warm and sincere thanks we received from almost everyone around us, was some kind of record. The next morning we walked again along the stream. The hundreds of people, truckloads of equipment and yellow tape had vanished, along with the ancient Chinese fish market. I was starting to understand why even crappy movies cost tens of millions of dollars to make.

The next morning… no more film set. Ajassis resume their positions.

The film itself, ‘The Legend of the Dancing Ninja’ was a loose sequel to the less than stellar 1997 film, ‘Beverly Hills Ninja’, which starred the late comedian Chris Farley. It had been suggested more than once that the original movie was not worthy of a sequel (The New York Times reported that Farley relapsed into drug and alcohol abuse after reading “a particularly terrible rewrite” of Beverly Hills Ninja, and that he wept (not with joy) at the premiere of the film). The film was not universally panned, though even those who spared a few positive words for Beverly Hills Ninja wondered later about the justification for a sequel, considering the star of the original film was deceased.

We’ll never know just how masterfully crafted this second movie actually was, because with 30 percent of shooting completed, production was shut down and the director fired from the project (he did later win a court case however against a consortium of Korean financiers). The film was never completed (and we never did get to meet The Hoff). What does survive of this unfortunate cinematic train-wreck however is the trailer. For diehard fans of my daughter’s earlier work, she appears at about the 19-second mark.

It’s actually not difficult at all for foreigners in Korea to land jobs as extras (and speaking roles) in film and television. I often see friends and acquaintances from the neighbourhood on TV commercials and such.

I think if you’re on an E2 (English teacher’s) visa, all of this is illegal of course, though that technicality doesn’t appear to bother anyone, ever. If you’re interested in doing some film or TV while on the ROK, a friend’s account of a twelve-hour shoot in the middle of nowhere is here.

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