The Korean “A Barefoot Dream” was one of the many productions hoping to tie in with the 2010 FIFA World Cup held in South Africa, and like most sports related films is an inspirational outing. The East Timor set film was directed by the multi-talented, genre and country hopping director Kim Tae Kyun, whose last film was the Japanese vampire romp “Higanjima”, and whose CV also includes popular hits like “Volcano High”, “Romance of their Own” and “A Millionaire’s First Love”. Park Hee Soon, recently in “The Scam”, takes the lead, with support from Kim Suh Hyung (“Black House”), Lim Won Hee (“Dachimawa Lee”), and Ko Chang Suk (“Secret Reunion”), not to mention a plethora of local kids. Having proved popular at home, the film has been selected as the Korean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 2011.
Park plays Kim Won Kang, a former player for the Korean national team who has fallen on hard times, reduced to travelling around and scraping a living through cons and shady schemes. After ending up in East Timor, he decides to open a sports store, hoping to sell football equipment and clothing to the locals. Sadly, his business doesn’t take off, and in an effort to make some money back he tries to loan out football boots to the youngsters who play in the nearby park. Although they can’t afford to pay him, he finds himself becoming involved in their lives, and takes on the role as their coach, aiming to make them into a team and take them to the International Youth Soccer Championship in Japan.
“A Barefoot Dream” follows the underdog sports story blueprint pretty much to the letter, with the initially unscrupulous Kim slowly becoming a better human being as he comes to care for his young charges. Their rise from barefoot street urchins to a professional team leading the hopes of the East Timor nation similarly maps out entirely as expected, right down to the slow motion final penalty shootout. Given this, and the fact that the film is based upon a true story, it’s fair to say that the plot is inherently predictable from the very first frame. However, this was always going to be the challenge facing director Kim Tae Kyun, and he does a very good job of sidestepping the issue of over familiarity through some energetic and naturalistic direction and solid writing.
The East Timor setting certainly makes a difference, and although not quite in the league of “Slumdog Millionaire” Kim does manage an effective balance between tourist friendly local colour and showing the poverty and conflict in the country’s everyday life. Whilst he wisely avoids getting too wrapped up in politics or trying to make too much of a statement about the source of these problems, the scenes of riots and violence do add a sense of instability and danger, which helps the message of the unifying power of sport to hit home without being too preachy. Kim’s direction is vibrant, capturing an air of liveliness in and out of the football scenes, which themselves are very well handled, being exciting and fast moving whether taking place on a rundown back lot or an a huge stadium in Japan.
It also helps that the characters are well written and observed, with Park Hee Soon turning in a creditable and charismatic performance in the lead. Although his character arc is clearly signposted, and his transformation from self interested sleaze to all round nice guy is lacking in any real moral challenge, it is still engaging and rewarding enough. With the rest of the Korean supporting cast largely being on hand to provide some reasonably effective and non-grating comic relief, the rest of the film is carried by the local actors, all of whom are very naturalistic and go some way to making things more convincing. The young children are especially impressive, and are thankfully never manipulated into being the kind of cute pity magnets that might have been used to tug at the viewer’s heartstrings for cheap sentimentality.
This is very much to Kim’s credit, and it lifts “A Barefoot Dream” up several notches from the usual sports underdog or true life inspirational story. Although probably unlikely to make any impact at the 2011 Academy Awards, the film is no less engaging for its complete lack of surprises, and it makes for solid, humanistic entertainment, having a big heart worn proudly on its sleeve.
Tae-gyun Kim (director) / Kim Kwang-hoon, Tetsuya Oishi (screenplay)
CAST: Hee-soon Park