In the drama A Barefoot Dream, Kim Won-kang is a former youth national team footballer for South Korea. In adulthood, he has never succeeded in anything, losing his own money and that of family and friends. He heads to the newly independent country of Timor-Leste (East Timor) to get rich quick and redeem his reputation, but the money doesn’t materialize, and his real redemption comes from the change he effects within himself and others.
The film begins with an unpromising start that portrays Kim (Hee-soon Park) as an obnoxious mad man abandoned in his crocodile hunting startup. That and the low quality picture made me skip the film years ago. But hang on until he gets to East Timor, where the story starts to gel, the picture is much better, and the focus turns to kids, football, and Kim’s obstacles and demons.
Lacking a head for business, Kim opens a soccer shack in an impoverished country that doesn’t have the resources for sports and recreation. He gives cleats away to barefoot street urchins, telling them that he will also train them, and they just have to pay him $1 per day for 60 days.
That doesn’t last long, but he ends up needing his team to win the right to use the field. From there, he decides that these disadvantaged kids deserve a dream and exposure that will open opportunities. He gives up on making a living and instead inspires the kids to compete in an international tournament: the “Rivellino Cup” in Hiroshima.
Pretty close to the true story
The narrative is based on the true story of Kim Shin-hwan, a former pro footballer who coached youth soccer in East Timor to immediate success. According to a Mar-2020 Korea Post article, the impetus for coaching the kids came from Lt. Col. Choi Chull-whan, the deputy chief of the Civil Military Affairs of the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces Headquarters. Kim and the Lt. Colonel already knew each other through football. They knew sports would help kids recover from the trauma endured during East Timor’s battle to achieve independence.
I also found an unofficial copy of an interview of the real Mr. Kim during the film’s release, where he explained how he first came to East Timor and why he stayed. It seems to mirror the film a little too well, which makes me unsure if this article is real. But the fact remains that 2 players who participated in the film were able to go to college in South Korea in 2012, and as of Mar-2020, the Korea Post reported that Mr. Kim continues to coach in East Timor.
Relations between East Timor and South Korea
Before watching this film, I had heard of a place called Timor but didn’t know there is a separate country named East Timor and that they share an island. East Timor was a Portuguese colony for centuries, but Timor is part of Indonesia and located halfway between Indonesia and Australia. When Portugal left, Indonesia occupied East Timor, but the cultures were too different.
East Timor fought for independence, and many died, but the UN installed peacekeeping units. South Korea sent the Evergreen Unit, which stayed from 1999 to 2004 and made a good impression on the East Timorese people. South Korea contributes funding to East Timor and provides opportunities for young people to come to South Korea for education or employment.
FIFA and East Timor
East Timor was the first new nation of the 21st Century, and FIFA was ready. FIFA has a penchant for bringing new nations into its membership as quickly as possible, even when that nascent country doesn’t have the wherewithal or infrastructure to support the game. Possibly the worst example is captured in the 2012 documentary on South Sudan’s Coach Zoran and his African Tigers.
When FIFA flashes cash so early, it creates a culture of corruption. While this doesn’t reflect Mr Kim, executives of the East Timor Football Federation have been banned for match-fixing as well as for falsifying passports of 12 Brazilian players in qualifying matches for WC 2018.
About the making of the film
In interviews of Director Tae-gyun Kim, he said that when they filmed in East Timor in 2009, there was no film industry and thus no film infrastructure. For example, casting calls yielded no one. As a result, Mr. Kim’s players were used in the film even though none of them were actors. Mr. Kim was also a heavily involved consultant for the film and was a reason why the then President of East Timor participated in the film as himself.
As far as soccer play, most of it is practice on dirt or mud fields. The film crew actually travelled to Hiroshima to play a real youth team. The football action doesn’t really give you a feeling for the level of the game because it is so heavily spliced, but the play is well-integrated into the story.
There is quite a mix of languages in the film, which reflects how the real Mr. Kim talks. He gets his point across despite speaking a mix of Korean, Konglish (Korean-English), Indonesian and who knows what else.
The “bad guy” in the film was a bit of a puzzle. Coach Kim must defeat the man’s team for field time. But the guy looks so much like Cristiano Ronaldo (a little heavier and a lot more tan), I found his presence very distracting. I had to wonder if he was picked for the role because of this resemblance.
A Barefoot Dream gives a different spin on the “white savior” angle in that the savior isn’t white and needs saving as well. It is a good redemption story.
7 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 7
- Released: 2010-06-24 (South Korea)
- Original title in Korean is 맨발의 꿈
- Title in Japanese is 裸足の夢
- 120 minutes
- In Korean and Indonesian with English sub-titles
- I watched this on Amazon
- Director: Tae-gyun Kim
- Stars: Hee-soon Park (Park Hee-soon) 박희순
- Watch the Trailer
- Watch the film on the Asian Crush website