A Teacher Finds Movie Stardom in South Korea

The best chance an English-language teacher in South Korea has of acquiring military experience, it appears -- outside of creating an incident at a checkpoint near the border – is working for Kang Je-gyu, one of the country‘s top movie directors.

A would-be actor who prefers just to be known as Jack is the latest in a long line of western teachers, investment bankers, engineers, plumbers, tourists, vagabonds and backpackers who have found themselves catapulted onto the Asian big screen thanks to the local scarcity of western faces. Their presence is usually fleeting and villainous but no less memorable for it.

Jack’s appearance thus mirrors the Hollywood movies of the 1930s when American directors sought Chinese or Japanese farmers or Filipino immigrants -- more or less at random-- to play Asian characters. Perhaps unaware that he was also playing his part in a reciprocal historical wave, Jack was recruited to be an extra on the movie set of My Way, Kang’s new World War II blockbuster, which is due to for release sometime before Christmas.

Rather than smashing through doors to take out face-scarred villains with a Berreta Modelo 418, the would-be actor found himself standing around, as legions of other extras have done, for hours on a set in last February’s acute chill. As his skin blued in emergency-issue rubber boots, he began to ask himself: “Do I really want to be here?”

In fact, Jack knew that extras are basically paid to hang around off screen. He had worked as one in Canada before moving to Korea. “I remember a lot of standing around,” he said. “If you smoked it gave you something to do. So I was at a bit of a loose end.”

Work as an extra in Korea required little research.

“I spent an hour in a PC room,” he says. He googled “non-teaching positions.” The opportunity to be a movie extra was on page one. It specified the need for applicants to be F2 visa holders, which are issued to the spouses of Korean nationals. In South Korea, an educational E2 visa forbids any paid employment outside of the employment sponsor’s workplace. Sure enough, upon first meeting, Jack’s fellow western ESL teacher extras each protested their married eligibility to one another.

“A couple of guys flew in from Jeju, most had been in the country for a decade or so -although that wasn’t necessary to get the job,” he said.

Jack’s extra role as a Soviet prison camp guard required a little more than smoking. It required freezing. In the cold, he dragged would-be escapees back from a prison camp perimeter. He threw clothes from trucks. He pulled mean mid-20th century faces. As directed, he guarded the camp with inhumane efficiency, doing everything that an ESL teacher in South Korea possibly can to get on in the ranks of a re-imagined Soviet infantry. Finally, it earned him promotion: a speaking role.

Jack and the other expatriates were on set for five days during the shoot, director Kang’s seventh feature length production. Kang drew international recognition for his third film, the 1999 Asia-wide hit, Shiri. Shiri painted a Hong Kong action-style sheen onto a tale of terrorist infiltration and love across the DMZ. The record six and a half million people who saw Shiri easily covered the film’s then-record breaking $8.5 million budget; which was partially funded by Samsung.

Shiri smoothed a path for Kang to beat both records again with Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (2004), which depicted brutally the family anguish that tears up members of a divided people. That Korean War blockbuster has now led the way to the pan-Asian World War II blockbuster, My Way.

The budget for My Way is again breaking records for a Korean made film, at nearly US$30 million. It recounts the nightmarish story of a Korean man forcibly conscripted into the Japanese army who ended up also wearing the military uniforms of China and Germany. Hearing the true story it is based on made Kang’s “blood boil,” he told reporters. But about halfway through the shoot it had frozen.

“After Taegukgi,” I swore that I wouldn’t do another war film because it’s so difficult to shoot,” the director was quoted as saying. “The weather is always a factor and it involves many risky elements. Because we had a lot of snow and rain, we had to postpone production a couple of times.”

Jack, free to work during the inter-semester period at the university where he taught, joined the production at about this time. He corroborated Kang’s words. “It was freezing,” he said. “My feet were bigger than the boots they had available so I ended up in these flimsy black replacements. I had to borrow small heating pads from the foreign casting director. My heels were still numb a week later.”

It is improbable that viewers will feel pity for the camp guards. “I was wearing thin flannel pants in February,” protested Jack. “But I at least had a coat.” The Korean extras were less snug. “The production team seemed to have mistakenly ordered spring clothing for the shoot.” That or it was a Stanford Prison Experiment-esque attempt to extract authenticity from men playing the roles of camp prisoners.

“They were shaking uncontrollably on the first day I was on set,” added Jack. The prisoners’ livelihoods were of less material value than the guards, too. “The Korean extras worked for less pay,” Jack says. “We got about $1,100 for five days work.,”

Creative production and subject matter seemed to overlap on the set of My Way, he says. The early attrition rate among camp prisoner extras was high.

“About a third or so didn’t show up on day two,” Jack recalled, acknowledging that the cold may have numbed his counting faculties. The local extra who scored a line begging “Let him live! Let him live!’ seemed to be genuinely welling up with a vicarious appeal to the production team to plug in some resuscitating heat.

It wasn’t just the weather, though. Army life and on set existence seemed to fuse as the environment went method. Food, for one, was equatable with rations. Camp guards and prisoners mingled in line at a meal wagon whose rice cooled quickly for those not at the front. The grind of passivity felt real, too. People dressed in skimpy threads spent the day listlessly standing around waiting for something to end. And as in the victor-defeated relationship of a prison camp, facilities were built with the temporary interests of the authorities in mind. Barracks seemed real but were uncovered to the elements.

Jack only witnessed a single case of insubordination. “One of our guys refused to shave. Wanted to keep his beard. I thought his beard would help him with authenticity. He just didn’t want to shave.” But there were no major revolts amongst the extras. “Everyone got on. I remember the Lithuanian guy playing the part of the Russian general. Very nice fella, tall as hell, with a grasp of a dozen languages.”

Watching established Korean, Japanese, and Chinese stars Jang Dong-gun, Jo Odagiri, and Fan Bing Bing up close apparently rubbed off on Jack. He was headhunted to say something on camera in Russian that he can no longer remember.

“It was something like, “I come from Moscow with orders for the release of such and such.” Just two or three seconds.” If his line makes the final cut, Jack hopes that no one will notice that the man from Moscow had been moonlighting on set as a guard. “A speaking role in Canada gets you more basic hourly pay,” he remarked. Jack did ask, but it was my way or the highway on My Way. “I didn’t get a raise but I suddenly got a little more respect.”

Jack said this was most noticeable with the assistant director, who could have functioned on set just fine without a megaphone.

“He yelled a bit,” Jack said. “He yelled louder at the Korean extras than the foreigners.” After Jack’s promotion the yelling stopped. “Previously, it had been 'Go here!' Go there!' Now it was, “Oh Jack, please go there.'"

So did he take his chance? “My line was only reshot a couple of times. So either I did a great job straight away or a terrible job and they didn’t want to waste any more film.”

It was probably the former. The assistant director wanted Jack’s number. There was talk of a role in a Korean TV show that reenacts strange real life stories from abroad. “But,” lamented Jack, “I’d have to move up to Seoul.”

So did he really want to be there? Jack gave a slightly conditional yes.

“If I’d have been one of the prisoners I would have been more likely to complain and quite possibly bail, if it was money versus possible pneumonia…but our hotel had a sauna. And that was the clincher.” For now Jack would rather stay in his real-life speaking role and wait to see if his line makes the final cut.

(NB Armstrong is a freelance writer and translator living in South Korea. He can be reached at aex_nba@yahoo.co.uk)