By Lee Hyo-won
With South Korea set to compete Saturday in the World Cup round-16 match, the football fever here is hotter than ever.
A timely release is "Barefoot Dream
", about the so-called "Hiddink of Korea" that coaches penniless East Timorese children (named after the Dutchman who led the Taeguk Warriors to the 2002 World Cup semifinals).
Made with the support of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and having been the first ever feature film to be screened at the U.N., "Barefoot" is a solid, politically correct (and a bit sugar coated) sports movie that is all about the love of the game.
It showcases all the hallmarks of the classic underdog movie, with adrenaline-pumping sequences, but is also so much more. It is a humane tale about "jeong" or collective compassion that touches upon the timeless themes of hope and redemption while offering an incisive observation of a developing country.
Yet even for those who could care less about malnourished kids kicking ball in an obscure place, it offers lighthearted entertainment with mass appeal to audiences both near and far. Like any good movie, it transports viewers to a whole new time and space to meet some of the most endearing individuals. You might easily find yourself cheering for the boys as if watching a real match and feeling like you can taste the sultry air of the tropical island.
, who directed the North Korean refugee film "Crossing"
, again shows off his knack for filming dramatic stories in tough locations. But life is often stranger than fiction, and the story of Kim Shin-hwan, the footballer-turned-businessman who is now East Timor's national hero, needs minimal dramatization _ though the lead actor Park Hee-soon
), deserves much credit for bringing a vibrant, antiheroic character who has mastered the art of Konglish (Korean-style broken English).
Park stars as Won-kwang, a once promising football player who is now often taken for a conman after a string of failed business ventures. But this Don Quixote, albeit a rather greedy one eager for financial success, heads over to East Timor. It's a land still recovering from civil war so roads and buildings need to be built, he thinks, which naturally equals money.
He has nothing to lose but is dismayed to realize that nothing awaits him in the small Southeast Asian country. Just as he is about to head back to the airport, however, he spots children playing football in the street.
Yet Won-kwang is no humanitarian who is inspired to volunteer to coach impoverished children; the sight of kids running around barefoot comes to him as a sign that there is a potential market for sports goods and he opens a store stocked with Nike footwear. But soon he realizes that there aren't many people who can afford the $60 shoes. He thus decides to "lease" them to the kids, and have them pay a dollar a day over two months.
What began as a business deal, however, blooms into an opportunity of a lifetime for not only the children but first and foremost for Won-kwang. "Hope, deceitful as it is, serves at least to lead us to the end of our lives by an agreeable route", once said Francois Duc de La Rochefoucauld, and our protagonist realizes that fortune and happiness are two different things as he forms a youth football team.
But teamwork is also far from easy; some of the boys, scarred by civil strife that claimed members of their family, are at one another's throats. Collaborating in a team sport however paves the path for friendship and forgiveness similar to orchestra projects that has brought together youths from Palestine and Israel.
Meanwhile the team is given the chance to take part in an international tournament in Japan. What would be the first ever overseas event for the newly independent nation, however, entails many hurdles as the team cannot afford the flight fare. Would they be able to make their dreams come true?
The film features some of the most captivating performances by the children, who are members of Kim's actual football team and East Timor's first ever movie stars. Supporting characters played by Ko Chang-seok
), Kei Shimizu and Im Won-hee
pepper the film with life and laughter. Xanana Gusmao, the actual East Timorese former president (now prime minister), also makes a special appearance as himself.