Monday, January 24, 2011

A Barefoot Dream: The first of The Korean Cultural Service screening series of 2011

DB here. I want to take a minute and explain about this post. This is a report that was done for us at Unseen by Mondocurry. If you've been reading the blog since last years New York Asian Film Festival you'll have run across occasional references to him. I quoted his comments in regard to Live Tape, one of the most amazing concert films you'll ever see. I've referenced him in a few other reviews over the past year, now he's posting his first official review.

I met Mondocurry a couple of years back through an Internet discussion of Asian films. We kept in contact on line before finally meeting in person at last years New York Asian Film Festival. He's a great guy and a lot of fun to go to the movies with.

Two weeks ago the Korean Cultural Service started up their series of screenings of free Korean films for 2011 down at the Tribeca Cinemas. The series has been running off and on for a couple of years as mostly one offs but they appear to have started up as a regular feature last year when it moved to Tribeca. If you follow the link in the post below or on the Korean Cultural Service link in the sidebar you'll be able to get details.

Getting back to the post. I was supposed to go see this film but bad weather related traffic kept me from making a train. Fortunately I have a good friend who stepped up to the plate and said he would do what I couldn't do and covered the first film of the series, Korea's submission for the Oscars Foreign Language Award A Barefoot Dream, which is a true story of a soccer team.

A year ago, a shady little outlet for Asian cinema cropped up in New York City. Once every two weeks, the Korean Cultural Service would host a free screening of a Korean movie fitting under an umbrella theme (which changed about every two months) in a miniature screening room at Tribeca Cinemas.

The first film they showed in the series was a subtle comedic slacker-on-a-roadtrip charmer, Daytime Drinking. It was so low-key that a year later I all but forgot about it, even though it was a personal favorite from that year. As the year grew on, screenings were held with less regularity. Both waning interest and ability to attend caused me to miss a great deal of the year’s menu. Now, one year later, the Korean Cultural Service launches another year of programming, which is off to an even bigger start. January and February will consist of sports films, and the year was kicked off with the North American Premiere of Korea’s Best Foreign Language Oscar submission, A Barefoot Dream.

The film tells the too--bizarre--to--seem--true story of a washed up football player, Kim Won-kang, who is looking for profit in Indonesia. Ending up in Timor, a small village with a volatile political climate, Kim interacts with the area’s football-obsessed youth, leading up to the unlikely opportunity for them to travel abroad and play in an international youth exhibition tournament.

For me, the film was a bit of a bumpy path. There are stretches of pure amusement and bewilderment that get hitched up by a few rather large pebbles, until ultimately reaching a satisfying and very emotionally moving ending.

The first big rough patch is the tone of the movie, which often seems unnecessarily goofy when straightforward seriousness was what I expected and would’ve preferred. This probably owes to what I’ve come to expect from Korean dramas: dark moods, taut and tense, that pull no punches. While it is refreshing to see films shot on location in very real exotic locales such as this one, a " look at those crazy natives” sort of zaniness sometimes takes away from the emotional power of the story.

While it is pleasing to hear the authentic sampling of Indonesian pop music used in the film, the soundtrack sometimes contributes to the hokey-ness. At other times, the music choices overcompensate by being melodramatic to the point of tugging hard on the heartstrings. Rather than let the plight of the village kids speak for itself, the film highlights their ‘third worldliness’ in a way that condescends to preach to the audience. Long slow motion pans of the kids’ smiling faces, filled with the potential of dashed drams, proved a bit too manipulative for my tastes.

The other hitch is the sometimes meandering flow of the story, which often distracts from the big picture. To start with, the portrayal of Kim Won-Kang does not clearly establish him as a character in need of change. Sure, he is a slippery snake of a conniver, but he is never that much of a creep; not enough to make his path to salvation pack as powerful a redemptive punch as one might hope for. Events along the way, like the football matches held between Kim’s group of hopefuls in brand spanking new sneakers, versus a suspicious and overprotective older brother’s group, in barefoot squalor, seem to confuse rather than advance the story forward. I think I know who we are supposed to be rooting for, but wait a minute, who is the underdog here? Is it really so terrible that this local guy is looking out for his younger brother’s interest? It gets confusing as to what exactly the movie’s end game is supposed to be. While these incongruities sometimes distract and frustrate, I had to remind myself that this is indeed the retelling of a true story. The director’s only crime may be that he insisted too much on maintaining accuracy, and there is something noble in that.

There are also some eccentricities that are so oddball you can’t help but find them endearing. Take for example, the scenes where characters (including the impoverished little kids) argue heatedly, each in their own native languages, with no gap in comprehension at all. Then, there is the Japanese one man shipping company who, over solemn hot pot dinners with Kim and the Korean Ambassador, serves as the moral compass of the film by delivering meaningful allegories in broken English.

The jumble of events continues, which finds “coach” Kim in situations that prove him to be heroic, compassionate, and filled with a dreamer’s ambition. Then, things coalesce into something solidly and unwaveringly stirring in the 20 or so minute conclusion (and if a film is going to really shine in one place, where better than the ending?). Football, which is what we all came to see, takes center stage, and the themes that were somewhat muddled earlier on become crystal clear. Tae-gyun Kim delivers an exhibition football match between our Indonesian Bad News Bears and a team of adolescents from Japan, with the intensity of a high stakes battle in a gritty war film. Soccer balls collide with opposing team members’ bodies with the thud of hand grenades, and whiz past teammates’ ears like narrowly missing artillery. No emotionally leading music or overwrought dialogue is necessary to show the emotions felt and life lessons learned by the young protagonists. With little explanation, the magnitude of Kim’s achievement stands tall.

After the film, director Kim was on hand to humbly thank the audience and answer questions. He revealed background information that added to the intrigue of the film. “Coach” Kim was indispensable throughout production, opening channels between the director and the local government, including Timor’s president who appeared as himself in the film. Members of the real life football team on which the film is based were cast as older teens in the movie, and for the most, the kids comprising of the team in the movie were all locally cast, with little acting experience. In the course of filming, there was an instance of violent civil unrest much like the one shown in the movie. Afterwards, I felt as though I had received a rousing history lesson about a little known event (that will probably remain largely untold) which found altruistic behavior trumping nationalism.

I suspect that A Barefoot Dream lacks the same level of art and execution as many of this year’s other submissions for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. But it’s hard to imagine any of those films have nearly as much heart.

As of the posting of this entry, the official nominations for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award have not been made. We'll have to see if A Barefoot Dream is among them when they are announced tomorrow morning.

DB again---For those interested in seeing the next film in the series that's tomorrow January 25th. The film is Take Off a comedy based upon what happened when the Olympics went to Korea and they realized they needed to field a ski jumping team. With any luck I should be attending and a post will go up towards week's end. (I'd post it sooner but the Sabu series at the Japan Society starts Wednesday and I'm planning on attending that as well.)

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