Four little monks discover brotherhood in their shared sadnesses as they valiantly chase down a gang of evil robbers specialising in thieving ancient relics from Buddhist temples in Yongminne’s slapstick kids adventure movie Action Dongja (액션동자). Exposing a societal prejudice against orphans along while upending a few stereotypical notions about monks, Yongminne’s warmhearted drama is equal parts a coming-of-age tale for each of the pint-sized monastics and Home Alone-style heist movie as the kids plot how to take down the crooks using their unique skillsets.
Little Jingu has had it tough. He lost his parents at a young age and has been separated from his younger sister. Now his grandmother who was raising him has died and another woman whom the grandma had apparently asked to take care of him has decided to dump him at the temple instead. Apparently Christian, the woman planned to leave him at an orphanage but thought the temple might be better because he’ll be near his grandmother’s resting place. As might be expected, Jingu does not take well to his new life. Not only is he overcome with grief having lost all of his family members, his home, and everything he knew but he didn’t ask for this very regimented existence and it’s obviously an extreme adjustment which might explain why he’s become mute, sullen, and withdrawn. Nevertheless, one very cheerful and friendly boy nicknamed “piggy” because of his bottomless stomach, extra sensitive nose, and obsession with food keeps trying to make friends with him even coming to his aid when he’s hazed by a couple of local kids at school and later bailed out by two top martial artists, the kind and sensitive Jeongbeop and the exceedingly mean and authoritarian Gajin.
Jeongbeop explains to the bullies that it’s not right to bully those weaker than yourself and so they had no choice other than to defend themselves, asking for forgiveness as they leave. That doesn’t make much difference to the monks, however, when the boys’ parents turn up to throw their weight around insisting that they don’t want kids like these at their sons’ school virtually accusing the temple of training up little thugs. “Kids without parents are the ones who lie” one fires back, unwilling to believe her good little son could have misrepresented himself while reflecting a societal prejudice towards those who have no family. The younger of the two monks tries to defend the boys, insisting that it’s hardly their fault they’re orphans, but the chief monk is quick to placate the parents while perhaps sending mixed messages punishing Jingu and the other boys but later taking them out for Korean barbecue. Though many Buddhist monks are vegetarian, it is not strictly required and in any case the boys are too young to be expected to adhere entirely to asceticism yet the group’s presence once again arouses a degree of suspicion and resentment as opposed to mere surprise in an irrationally annoyed couple on a nearby table.
Meanwhile, the boys are also rejected by their peers who unfairly blame them when their temple is robbed, the chief monk stabbed, and a precious picture scroll stolen. Jingu happened to see the face of the man who did the stabbing, but is unable to say anything later telling his new friends when they hatch a plan to catch the thieves themselves as a way of regaining the respect of the other boys and getting justice for the chief monk. In true heist movie style, Jingu who has not yet had his ordination takes the other kids shopping so they can better blend in, the gang even becoming temporary street performers Piggy rapping sutras while the other two do a martial arts display, to pick up extra cash after getting pickpocketed in the big bad city. Unexpectedly it’s Piggy who saves the day with his famously well-attuned sense of smell, picking up the scent of incense on a suspicious man at the port. Bonding during their mission, the boys come to an understanding of their various traumas and the ways in which they inform some of their behaviour generating a sense of brotherhood as they band together to take down the robbers. An old-fashioned kids adventure with a monastic twist, Action Dongja is a charming tale of unconventional found family in which the lonely hero learns to find his place while chasing bad guys and solving crime.
Action Dongja streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.