In 2002, East Timor (officially Timor Leste), a tiny island nation 400 miles north of Australia, became the first independent nation of the 21st century. A former Portuguese colony and invaded and annexed in 1975 by Indonesia with the help of US, this nation's history is marred by violence and poverty.
Director Kim Tae-gyun (Volcano High, The Crossing) uses this volatile backdrop for his latest film, A Barefoot Dream, and tells a story of a former Korean soccer star and failed businessman who travels to East Timor, like many other opportunistic foreigners, in the hopes of exploiting the local economy. Instead, he ends up coaching a soccer team of poverty stricken East Timorese kids, ultimately bringing them to a world tournament soccer victory. The film makes its North American premiere at the Tribeca Cinemas in Manhattan as part of bi-monthly Korean Film Nights series, made possible by Korean Cultural Service
and the Subway Cinema
. I had an opportunity to sit down and talk with director Kim prior to the screening:
How did you come across this incredible story?
There was a Korean TV documentary about East Timor and its independence. They featured coach Kim Shin-hwan and the East Timorese kids and how they won the Hiroshima International Youth Soccer Tournament very briefly. In it, Kim says, "I wish I could feed these kids some meat from time to time." That appealed to me a great deal.
Did many Koreans know about the existence of East Timor prior to A Barefoot Dream? In the States, except for some reports by independent journalists, the situation in East Timor didn't generate a lot of attention in mainstream media.
Yes and no, there were debates on sending peacekeeping troops in the parliament without much of fanfare (which we eventually ended up doing) when Indonesian troops were violently oppressing the East Timorese. I think Koreans are more aware of international issues once it became a viable economic power.
Was coach Kim Shin-hwan (as Won-kwang in the film, played by Park Hee-soon) involved in making of the film?
Oh, absolutely, from beginning to end. If it weren't for him, we wouldn't have the film. Just like you see in the film, Kim got to know the locals pretty well, first with his broken English (or Konglish as we call it) then by picking up their dialect. He was not only our consultant, but a guide, interpreter and ambassador. It was his friendship with Xanana Gusmão(the former President and present Prime Minister of East Timor) that made possible for him to appear as himself in the film!
What were some of the challenges you faced shooting in East Timor?
They literally had nothing there. After years of violent conflicts, there was no infrastructure set up. We had problems as soon as we landed. Bureaucracy over there is tantamount. Our gear was stuck at the airport for a long time. There have been no film productions in East Timor other than one Australian documentary crew before us.
Dili is a small town of about 15000 people. And we needed about 300 extras for many of the scenes. We put out an ad for cast and extras but no one came. We had to actively seek out people on the street. But they had no concept of film business. They just came and went as they pleased. Understandably they were busy eking out a living. But for us every step was a challenge since all the things we took for granted in film productions were not there.
You have some amazing kids in this film. How was the casting process?
We cast mostly from Coach Kim's pool. He had about 30 members in his team. We picked kids whom we felt right for the part. They were around 9-11 years old.
Was it a difficult to direct them?
When the script was finalized, we gave them copies and asked them to read it prior to shooting. But kids just being kids, not some professional child actors, non of them read the script all the way through (laughs). So I had to sit them down beginning each day of the shooting and read it aloud together, one page at a time.
What became of the original team members?
As you know, it was 2004 when Kim led the East Timor team to become champions. The original members of that team are now in their late teens and many of them make appearances in the film (as grown up soccer players). They all went different ways. Some of them are still playing soccer.
You think some of the kids from the film have a future in professional soccer, for instance, Ramos? He is phenomenal.
Yes. I think Ramos could definitely be a soccer star. The other two (Motavio and Tuo), I'm not sure. I think they like to play but have other interests.
Your previous film, The Crossing (2008) (about the flight of the North Korean refugees) dealt with an important subject. Are you generally attracted to social justice issues in making films?
I think it's got to do with me getting old. I don't think film should be made just for entertainment purposes. I think there should be a good balance between entertainment and substance. At least that's what I try to do anyway. There is talk that A Barefoot Dream is being considered for nomination for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. This film would certainly deserve such an honor.
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