Crew members often said shooting child actors was almost like a nightmare. Of course, not all child actors were like that. But filming while comforting and soothing the unpredictable emotions of a child could be pretty challenging.
From a director’s perspective, who needed to consider an actor’s emotional portrayal, dialogue tone, and intonation, sometimes working with child actors could feel as reckless as trying to crack a rock with an egg. On the other hand, child actors who performed under the pressure of their parents’ control might feel like they’re dealing with an incomprehensible object. Thus, filming with child actors could be quite tricky for both parties.
“Is there anything you’re not satisfied with?”
Yoo Myeonghan looked at the boy across from him. He was carefully examining the contract he had prepared for this occasion. Normally, casting directors were solely responsible for conducting auditions. Their job was to recruit extras and supporting actors while considering the director’s preferences. The payment for child actors was positioned between 1st and 5th grade on the 18-level payment scale of the broadcasting station, so it was reasonable to consider it at a lower level.
“I’m satisfied with the payment.”
The boy, Jang Yeongguk, wasn’t lying. Having gone through numerous extras in his past life, he naturally learned how much child actors get paid. If they weren’t famous or signed with a large agency, the standard payment per appearance usually ranged from a million to a hundred thousand won. The most important thing for child actors was gaining experience and recognition on set. In contrast, Jang Yeongguk’s payment was the highest amount offered to rookie child actors on their first shoot, thanks to the influence of Yoo Myeonghan.
“I understand that my scenes are only until the third episode, but the last shooting day overlaps with my school opening day.”
Yoo Myeonghan quickly checked the initial shooting schedule specified in the contract. Filming didn’t just happen just because it was planned. Especially for dramas that were influenced by viewers and broadcasting station executives, a lot happened during the production stage.
Pre-shooting events in the Korean drama and film industry included on-site recruitment, casting, and preliminary investigations to the script reading and production announcement event. The initial schedule covered all these complicated and diverse possibilities. While the latter part of the schedule might naturally require overnight shoots, any disruption in the early stages could lead to a major accident. As a result, the broadcasting station’s ADs treated this initial schedule as if it were their lifeline, even praying every dawn to keep it.
“Can you adjust it for just one day?”
“Yeongguk, isn’t it okay to miss school for just one day on your opening day? I’ll personally talk to your homeroom teacher and send an official letter to the school.”
“Sir, I really want to achieve perfect attendance. You can edit my scenes from the third episode if it’s too difficult to adjust. I saw that the broadcasting station only calculated the payment for up to the second episode since the child actor appears in only a few cuts in the third episode. Please decide whether you’ll also pay me for the third episode or if I’ll only film until the second. I’ll only work for what I’m paid.”
He knew he was audacious but didn’t expect it to this extent. He claimed he had been authorized by his mother to sign the contract and even brought her seal and ID. His additional explanation was quite impressive.
“PD, do you know why people in Namhang Market are so passionate? You can’t do business if you slack off even for a day, except on market holidays. Even the spot to sell fish can be taken by someone else. Insisting I bring my mother is like asking me to close my stall. You wouldn’t want to see my mom and me sitting on the street, would you?”
It’s impossible to win against him in an argument.
“Fine, I’ll make sure the appearance fee is sorted out. Let’s film up to the third episode.”
“Isn’t it better to put it in the contract as a special clause rather than a verbal agreement?”
“I can’t win against you in words. Let’s do it your way.”
Yeongguk raised both hands and finally smiled. He seemed like a young boy, but talking to him felt like conversing with a peer who had been through it all.
“By the way, Yeongguk, can you act well in front of the camera? I’m not worried about you memorizing the script, but it’s your first time acting. I don’t know why I’m telling this to a kid like you, but I have much riding on this project.”
The day Yoo Myeonghan witnessed Jang Yeongguk’s script reading, he felt as if he was possessed. He had an intuition that he couldn’t let this child go and immediately called to cancel the casting of the original child actor. He even got scolded by a close casting director, but he still believed his decision was correct.
“Are you scared?”
“Did you read my thoughts?”
“No, it’s natural for you to think that way as a PD. On the set, there are cameras, staff, and crowds watching outdoor shootings. You’re wondering how a rookie actor, especially a child, could overcome the pressure. What if they suddenly cry on set and delay the shooting?”
“Yeongguk, did you take a peek inside my head? How do you know people’s minds so eerily?”
“I saw a documentary a few years ago about the hardships of TV station PDs. They said working with child actors was a nightmare. But don’t worry too much.”
The boy picked up a copy of the contract and added, “At least I know my manners.”
* * *
Amidst the seagulls’ cries harmonizing with the waves, the heat of Namhang Market was more intense than the scorching summer sun. In the middle of it all, a boy who captured the tourists’ attention was energetically moving about.
“Hey, don’t just pass by; take a look. You can’t see such fresh fish in these parts of town. They’re great when grilled or steamed; the remaining head makes a delicious soup. It’s perfect for emptying a whole bottle of soju tonight!”
A boy, who seemed like he had never tried soju, realistically exclaimed in admiration, causing laughter to erupt all around. Tourists were already deeply immersed in the spectacle as if watching a play. As if in a stage situation, the tourists approached the protagonist, captivated.
“How can a little kid speak so well? We do love fish. Since we’re in Busan for a business trip, I was asked to buy a fresh one. What should I get?”
“Sir, you’re in luck today. You must have known Namhang Market has the freshest live fish with the best water. Look at this fish’s eyes; it just leaped out of the sea. See, this red bowl makes it confused whether it’s still in the ocean. I’ll take full responsibility for packaging it with lots of ice.”
“Haha, are kids from Yeongdo Village usually this eloquent?”
“Not all, but here’s a small one as a service for you, sir!”
As the bustling day at Namhang Market in Busan ended and evening came, a mother looked at her son with pity. His hands, used to pulling the fish cart all day, must have smelled fishy, but he didn’t complain.
“Son, can you really do that drama filming or whatever it is?”
His mother asked him worriedly when they were back in their small, moldy room with yellow wallpaper. She met unheard-of broadcasting station representatives from Seoul and even signed a contract, but it was natural for her to worry about her smart, talented son, who was only fourteen.
“Mom, I’ll do my best. You don’t have to worry.”
“When does the filming start?”
“We’ll have the first shoot in a month.”
“What role did you get?”
“Kim Hajin, a little kid from Busan.”
She smiled faintly and looked at him with some bewilderment. A child playing a child’s role. But even that smile couldn’t erase the worry in her heart.
“Do you want to be an actor?”
He understood his mother’s concern. Just days ago, she saw an unknown actor named Song Jeongseok in person. Unfortunately, only a tiny fraction of actors enjoyed glamorous lives on TV. She worried he might live such a life, chasing dreams in a harsh world.
Mom, I’ll be on TV a lot this year.
He held his mother’s hand.
“No, just once.”
* * *
In the deserted early morning, under the lone streetlight, he scribbled on the empty playground sand with a wooden stick. The lines drawn represented the camera’s movement during filming. He had been an actor in his past life, but had he not escaped that lifestyle as if running away? Relying on alcohol had made him forget even the sense of being an actor.
“I must earn my keep.”
One must keep their word once it’s spoken. It wasn’t a matter of age. Upon stepping on stage, an actor must become one with their role. He had recited the script written by writer Choi Eunsuk hundreds, if not thousands of times in his head. The careful footsteps, while appearing light, felt heavy.
“I’ve been criticized a lot.”
Unlike the theater, in dramas, one must not act outside the frame, so shooting routes are marked on the floor. Many outstanding actors in theater faded away in dramas, partly due to this reason.
Acting for broadcasting and theater followed different tracks. Tone and voice can be fixed through painstaking efforts, but presenting believable, natural acting in front of the camera cannot be achieved without experience. Moreover, it’s not like it was decades ago. In the future, when filmmakers use advanced CG, shooting routes will be clearly marked, but for now, they’re indicated by inconspicuous objects and small transparent stickers.
“Senior, how can you act so naturally?”
It was a question he once asked Song Jeongseok in his past life. He despaired when he realized how difficult it was to become one with their role. But Song Jeongseok did not answer. Like numerous branches sprouting from one root, everyone’s acting path is different, and one must go through long periods and many roles to realize this truth.
“Just once, please.”
His mother’s anxious question was also a reminder for him. He wouldn’t struggle with acting anymore. Holding the script, he vowed not to hold onto futile dreams or seek desires. Just as there was no paradise due to human greed and desire, the same applied to acting.
The existence of actors meant there was no end to acting. If he were to walk the path of an actor again, he would be consumed by selfishness and desire to find the nonexistent end of acting. He hadn’t forgotten his resolution to live happily in his second life. His acting career would end after this role. But a beautiful ending would leave no regrets.
He moved his footsteps along the marked route.
It seemed as if he could see the faces of his counterparts in front of them. As he went from being a minor actor to becoming famous, he worked hard to hone his skills. He now used the techniques he once practiced in his previous life. Creating his own stage, he became both the PD and the actor, showcasing his performance. Closing his eyes slightly, he listened to his surroundings as if he had returned to the past as the actor Jang Yeongguk.
The flickering streetlights, even the cool summer breeze, seemed to captivate his entire body as if everything had become part of the background. Just as ingrained habits are hard to forget, all his senses heightened. As if the clapperboard’s clapsticks had just been struck.
The moment he took a step…
He had become Kim Hajin.
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