Kicking Up Dust

Inspired by a true story, Kim Tae-gyun’s scrappy underdog sports film, A Barefoot Dream, cinematically captures the relationship between young East Timorese soccer hopefuls and their South Korean coach.

by Jaeki Cho
Photos courtesy of Showbox/Mediaplex

Though a number of South Korean directors have achieved international acclaim, Kim Tae-gyun isn’t one of them. Well, at least not yet. The 50-year-old filmmaker, known for his action and romance flicks, is a sunbae (senior) to directors Park Chan-wook (Old Boy), Kim Ji-woon (The Good, the  Bad, the Weird) and Bong Joon-ho (The Host), but has nowhere near reached their level of fame.

The thing is, he doesn’t mind.

Kim, though garnering American interest with his MTV-released martial arts film Volcano High (which featured dubbing work by Snoop Dogg and Method Man), believes his lesser-sung status allows for more creative freedom. Therefore, after completing a teenage love drama, Kim did a genre-180 to create two of his most critically acclaimed films: Crossing and A Barefoot Dream. Both pieces were selected as Korea’s official submissions to the Oscars for “Best Foreign Language Film” (Crossing for the 81st Academy Awards, and A Barefoot Dream for the 83rd—which airs Feb. 27). Though both failed to clinch a nomination, Kim doesn’t have any regrets.

After all, for his latest film to even come to fruition was a conquest.

A Barefoot Dream is a factual drama and coming-of-age tale based on the true experiences of an ex-professional Korean soccer player, Kim Shin-hwan. In the film, retired Korean athlete Kim Won-kang (portrayed by Park Hee-soon) dabbles in various trades and struggles entrepreneurially until he winds up in newly independent East Timor in search of new business opportunities. He ends up coaching a rag-tag youth soccer team—taking them as far as an international tourney in Japan.

The film, which also exposes East Timor’s impoverished conditions, was released in Korea in 2010 and had its U.S. premiere at Tribeca Cinemas in New York last month.

Would you say Korean directors tend to experiment with different genres? Only a handful. If you think about it, the world’s an industrial place. People don’t want diversity. Heo Jin-ho (April Snow, Christmas in August) continuously makes mellow dramas because that’s what the world wants. When someone gets overly famous for one style, it’s difficult to break that mold.

Yet you’re an experimental Korean director. How do you get away with that? I’m not famous, and I was never categorized. The film industry is a niche market. Bong Joon-ho, Kim Ji-woon and Park Chan-wook are brand names, but you won’t find them getting too many scripts because they’re too busy creating films that utilize their own signature traits. They must fulfill people’s expectations. I, on the other hand, don’t have such issues, allowing me the freedom to consistently shoot overseas or mix up genres.

Both Crossing and A Barefoot Dream were submitted by Korea for the Academy Awards. Are you the first Korean filmmaker to have two films selected as the country’s official submission? Yes, I believe so. The thing I’m worried about is…what if I don’t get nominated again? (Laughs.)

How did you come across the story for A Barefoot Dream? Around 2005, I was watching a television segment on East Timor, and for a few minutes they featured coach Kim Shin-hwan. I was fascinated. I just thought, “What’s he doing there?” He had brought shoes to the kids who were playing soccer in bare feet. The story moved me; I just felt this emotional surge. So I tracked down the coach. At the time, he was in Seoul. I met him, we talked, and a few months later I was in East Timor.

What’s the country like? There’s nothing. Just dust. But the kids are very affable. Although they’re living in poverty, they are extremely bright and genuine.

How much of the film is factual? [Coach Kim’s] many failed businesses and his eventual arrival in East Timor—those aspects are based on facts. Kim opening up a sporting equipment store is also a fact. The kids in the film, real-life soccer players, are part of Kim Shin-hwan’s youth team. The  older teenagers who appear in the film as fish merchants were the original players when the story in the film took place.

Why didn’t you use actors? We tried to gather some kids for an audition, but nobody would come. They have no concept of what an actor is or what an audition is. So the only actors I could use were the soccer players who gathered on a daily basis. During pre-production, we actually had to train the kids to get adjusted to the camera.

I found it very interesting that Coach Kim would give out orders in Korean. And that’s how the real-life Kim Shin-hwan talks to the kids. They even understood the orders I gave them in Korean when we were shooting the film. They’re able to catch things easily. I personally think it has something to do with the fact that East Timor is currently going through a language crisis. For centuries, the country was under the occupation of Portugal. Then for a few decades, it was under Indonesia’s control. It’s been independent for about 10 years now, but they’re teaching Portuguese to the kids again. There are multiple languages, and since foreign NGOs are coming into the country, the locals must communicate in English,too.

You’ve gone from directing more entertainment-based movies to making socially conscious films. What led to the transition? As I got older, I started to feel a sense of social responsibility. My interests have expanded. Before, I strictly created within the realm of films. But now, I’m more interested in social issues. After I was done writing Crossing and A Barefoot Dream, I was worried that nobody would be interested in financing the films because neither film acquired box office success. But I was still able to make them. For that, I’m thankful.


EAST TIMOR is an island state in Southeast Asia.

The official language is Portuguese. Formerly a Portuguese colony, East Timor declared its independence in 1975, but was soon invaded and occupied by Indonesia. After a bitter decades-long struggle for independence that involved violent militia clashes and international diplomatic pressure on Indonesia, a UN-sponsored referendum in 1999 showed that an overwhelming majority of East Timorese voted to break from its colonizer. Violence, however, ensued between pro-Indonesia militants and pro-independence East Timorese who wished to secede. East Timor became internationally recognized as an independent state in 2002, but the war-torn island remains in political turmoil. Its violent and brutal struggle for self-determination has resulted in the deaths and displacement of thousands.