By Lee Hyo-won
Most Koreans would shrug if asked about East Timor. The few that may have heard about the small South Asian island are mostly likely aficionados of gourmet coffee, the country's main export product.
The two countries seem to have a lot more in common however _ "han" or deeply imbedded sorrow pervades both cultures which have been tattered by colonization and civil strife. Yet "jeong", which can be roughly translated as fellow-feeling or collective compassion, keeps the strong family-oriented people together.
"Even the children would smile but their eyes would be weeping. The painful memories of war are still very real, and while there isn't a shortage of food, people suffer from unbalanced nutrition and tuberculosis", said director Kim Tae-gyoon
, who has become something of an ambassador for East Timor since shooting "Barefoot Dream
The movie is based on the true story about a failed Korean businessman who arrives in East Timor in search of lucrative business opportunities. He rediscovers the meaning of life as he uses his past experience as a professional footballer to coach the local children. "The wariness of foreigners was palpable when we arrived, but after a while I was treated like family and the kids cried when we had to leave. East Timorese people have a lot of jeong", Kim said.
More than a sports drama, the movie, Kim said, is an ode to hope. "I didn't want to depict a hero in my movie. It's about how these children transform a man who could have lived his life as a slacker", he said.
The dark tan from shooting sport sequences under the tropical sun has yet to wear off, but the 40-year-old filmmaker had to harness his strength for some more globetrotting work _ screenings at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, Korea and finally East Timor.
" is a window into East Timor, as it captures the breathtaking natural scenery as well as the reality of a country undergoing development. "It reminded me of what Korea was like while I was growing up, when we were also undergoing rapid economic growth. The electricity went out all the time and the water would stop running. But there were also really tense moments; we were escorted by the police all the time because armed conflict could break out any time".
Yet working with different people and customs in a foreign place is nothing new for Kim, who has shot in obscure parts of Mongolia and China for "Crossing"
, his previous work about North Korean refugees.
"Like `Crossing', this kind of project allowed me to expand my horizons and meet new people", he said. As much as "Barefoot Dream
" is about a youth football team, Kim established special ties with the local boys. The cast of young actors are members of the actual football squad. They are also East Timor's first movie stars.
"The boys are natural-born actors. Tua (one of the characters) should become a movie star instead of playing ball", he said. He gathered the children every morning in a makeshift drama school underneath a tree. "At first the boys had trouble mastering the script because they weren't used to reading so much text even in school. But they picked things up easily and took turns playing different roles and would even give each other acting tips".
One of the most affecting parts of the film is how some of the boys from feuding families learn to reconcile through team spirit. "When the two boys shake hands I was touched because it shows how the tragedy rooted in conflicting ideologies can be resolved. Thank you for making such a movie", the East Timorese ambassador to the U.N. was quoted as saying after the New York screening in June, in a statement by the film's publicist here.
"I look forward to 10 years down the road, to see what will have become of the boys", he said. He was also touched by how the East Timorese people, though materially poor, were rich in other ways. "I wondered if Korean children are happy in this country, where playgrounds are empty because kids have to go to private academies after school", he said.
Kim also emphasized the need for Koreans to expand their scope of interest and become global citizens.
"I just spoke with the Foreign Affairs Minister and he said he plans on sending more KOICA (Korean International Cooperation Agency which provides aid to developing countries) volunteers abroad. He's also agreed to support the establishment of a football school in East Timor, which (the youth football team coach Kim Shin-hwan) has been pursuing for the past several years". The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also funded the making of "Barefoot Dream
As for his next movie, Kim is not sure yet. But one thing that is certain is that he will continue filmmaking. "Coach Kim is like Don Quixote, he keeps jumping into the unknown. It's just like us movie directors and that's only possible if you hold onto your dreams", he said. His own son, a college student in the United States, recently switched majors from pre-med to communications in order to become a filmmaker. "It's his life and I can't stop him, because he started dreaming".
" is currently being offered with English subtitles at CGV Gangnam and Myeong-dong in Seoul.