Action Boys (Director: Jung Byung-gil): If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the guys who do the crazy stunts in Asian action and martial arts films, Action Boys is for you. But instead of telling us how they do their incredible stunts, the film is more interested in who they are when they’re not crashing cars or swinging swords. Director Jung Byung-gil is a 2004 graduate of the Seoul Action School, a rigorous six-month training program for television and film stuntmen, and the film is more like his personal tribute to the friends he made there, even though most have not gone on to professional stunt work. Out of his class of 34, fewer than half completed the training and at the time of filming in 2008, only three were actually working as stuntmen.
Byung-gil himself gave up stunt work for directing almost immediately, and it was his 2004 short film Standing on the Edge of a Sword that served as a sort of visual yearbook and demo reel for all of his classmates. We see some of that impressive footage but it’s balanced by hilarious excerpts from the audition tapes from all the main players in the film. Jin-seok was a former boxer (and hairdresser!) with six-pack abs. Sung-il was admitted, according to the school’s director, based on his good looks alone. And Gui-deok, despite an inauspicious audition, has become the most accomplished member of their class, and a specialist in car stunts. These are the three who continue to make their living as stuntmen. And then there’s the hapless Sye-jin, who has failed to settle into any career at all, but who still tags along with the others like a lost puppy. He provides plenty of comic relief, but so does director Byung-gil, whose self-deprecation adds a considerable amount of charm.
Although there are plenty of stunts on display, this is mostly an unstructured record of the ups and downs of a group of very close friends, some of whom happen to put their lives in danger every day. Invisible compared to the actors they stand in for, the Action Boys finally have the spotlight shone on them by someone who has been there. Theirs is a profession where, as Gui-deok says, they feel pain but are not allowed to express it, and this applies to more than just physical pain. Apart from their close friendships with each other, the men find it hard to maintain relationships, since they are often called away at a moment’s notice to film a scene. For this reason, as well as all the physical injuries they accumulate, most don’t last very long in the business. Jung Byung-gil’s camera is able to capture this giddy and tumultuous time in the lives of some of his closest friends, and it makes for a compelling film.
Because it’s such a personal film, though, it can tend to sprawl a bit, and in true Korean fashion, there’s a strong undercurrent of sentimentality (accompanied by some cheesy tinkly piano music every now and then). It’s lightened considerably by lots of self-deprecating humour, and an interesting directorial decision to employ a female voiceover. Other very minor quibbles: in places, the subtitles fly by pretty quickly, and a few of the minor characters are easy to get confused. I’m a bit disappointed not to be seeing this with an audience, though, because I think this feel-good tribute to some of film’s unsung heroes is the sort of experience that’s best enjoyed with an appreciative crowd. My prediction: look for this to be in the running for the Audience Award.