The Officer Class of Extras

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BUSAN, South Korea - The best chance an ESL teacher has of acquiring military experience in Korea is through director Kang Je-gyu. My friend, Jack Glowacki, found this out the hard way. He stood around for hours on Kang’s movie set in the chill of winter last February. As his skin took on a bluish hue, our sub zero hero asked himself: “Do I really want to be here?

Glowacki had already done extra-work in Canada. “At the time, a friend called and asked me if I could be part of a crowd. Very few people can’t do that.” He took the job, which lacked the excitement he might have expected from being on a movie set. “I remember a lot of standing around. If you smoked, it gave you something to do. So I was at a bit of a loose end.”

Getting on as an extra in Korea required some initial research. He spent an hour in a nearby net cafe Googling, “non-teaching positions”. As fate would have it, finding a movie extra opportunity appeared without even needing to scroll down. The ad specified F2 visa holders. “A couple of guys flew in from Jeju, and most had been in the country for a decade or so although that wasn’t necessary to get the job.”

The set itself held no surprises for Jack. “In many ways, it was similar to the stuff in Canada. There were the language differences obviously, but not much else…Or maybe I’ve been in Korea too long.” The gig required Jack to play a Soviet guard at a military prison camp. “The first time I put on the army uniform was fun. It would have been very cool when I was ten. I just wish there’d been more of it.”

Glowacki’s Korean extra work required more than just standing around and smoking. He dragged would be escapees back from a prison camp perimeter. He threw clothes from trucks. He pulled mean mid-twentieth century faces. As directed, he guarded the movie set prison 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. Until finally, the dream of every extra came true: he got a speaking role.

Jack and the other expats were on set for five days during shooting of director Kang Je-gyu’s seventh feature length production, My Way. Kang drew international recognition for his third film, the 1999 Asia-wide hit, Shiri. Shiri painted 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 record breaking $8.5 million budget; which was partially funded by Samsung.


Jack, along with the cast of foreign actors on set.

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

The budget for My Way is again record breaking for a Korean made film, at nearly $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.” 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.”

Glowacki, 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,” said Jack. “We got about $1,100 for five days work.” 

Creative production and subject matter seemed to overlap on the set of My Way. The early attrition rate amongst camp prisoner extras was high. “About a third or so didn’t show up on day two,” Glowacki recalled, admitting the cold may have frozen his counting abilities. 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.


    
Getting ready for a big scene.

It wasn’t just the weather, though. Army life and on set existence seemed to fuse as one. Food, for example, 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, Joe Odagiri, and Bingbing Fan 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. Director Kang’s AD could have functioned on set just fine without a megaphone. “He yelled a bit,” Jack said of him. “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.'"


Lights, camera, action! Another day at the Gulag in freezing temperatures.

So did he take his chance? “My line was only re-shot 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 re-enacts 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, Glowacki would rather stay in his strange real life speaking part and wait to see if his line makes the final cut of My Way, set for release in Korea this December.


 
 

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