“The Bad News Bears” turn “Invincible” in “A Barefoot Dream,” the latest ultra-commercial project from busy South Korean director Kim Tae-kyun, which recounts the true story of a Korean soccer pro bringing a rag-tag team of East Timorese youth to an international tourney. The feel-good formula is whipped up into such a heady froth that there’s little left to imbibe except star Park Hee-soon’s reliably likable anchoring performance. Though it scored nicely during its local June rollout, pic won’t draw overseas fans despite its foreign-language Oscar-submission status.
Indeed, it’s odd that South Korea opted for such slim goods in a year notable for several more substantial achievements; “Dream’s only distinctive factor is its East Timor setting, providing an inherent clash between the innocent, youthful world of soccer and the troubled island’s recent political turmoil — which Kim, as in his North-South border drama, “Crossing,” depicts as gently as possible.
After a promising but unfulfilled pro career, Kim Won-kwang (Park) has drifted into a chain of nonstarter businesses in Indonesia and developed a reputation for being something of a scam artist. The rep, it turns out, is undeserved, but after an accident in the forest leaves him with nowhere to go, he opts for the wild frontiers of East Timor.
Befriended by the rotund Mr. Park (Go Chang-seok, in his patented comic mode), who’s with the Korean embassy, Won-kwang is soon ready to leave the bedraggled new republic when he eyes a soccer game, where the young players are mostly barefoot. Opening a soccer equipment store seems to be a smart opportunity, but when his business draws few comers, he offers to coach the most talented kids; in exchange, they’ll pay him $1 a day to use his shoes.
The screenplay by Kim Gwang-hoon is structured on the uninspired principle that a new obstacle or problem must develop every 15 minutes or so, with the effect that the two-hour drama-comedy lurches relentlessly from one crisis to another. These often hinge on the interpersonal conflicts that arise with three kids who take centerstage: troubled but gifted Ramos (Francisco Varela), whose older brother is a thorn in Won-kwang’s side; Motavio (Fernando Pinto), blessed with size but cursed with potential blindness due to malnutrition; and Tua (Junior Da Costa), whose lack of height keeps him off the team until Won-kwang can no longer resist the boy’s sheer cuteness and plentiful tears.
Final match, set in Hiroshima against a squad of Japanese players, is stretched as far as a series of slo-mo sequences will take it. The mawkish tone of play on the pitch and emotions off it ultimately works to the film’s disadvantage, since the story’s particulars conjure up more than enough emotions on their own.
Solid production support tastefully applies a family-friendly but still credibly realistic world of dirt-poor poverty and mean streets, though composer Kim Jun-seok undermines it all with a simpleminded score.