There are countless underdog stories that are centered around a sport. American films largely feature baseball, basketball, and American football, e.g., A League of Their Own, Moneyball, Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights, Coach Carter, Gridiron Gang, and The Longest Yard (the remake and the original). The United Kingdom and India dabble in soccer and cricket, e.g., Goal! (there’s an Indian one with the same name too), Lagaan, Chak De! India, Bend It Like Beckham, The Damned United, Bigil, and Jhund. But, even though there are several sports films in the Asian market about baseball, volleyball, basketball, swimming, rowing, etc., due to my negligence, the only one that I have watched is Shaolin Soccer. I vow to correct that, and it’s safe to say that my path to that goal (pun probably intended) is going to start with Dream.
Byeong-heon Lee’s Dream begins with Yoon Hong-dae, who is mired in controversy about his mother, who has scammed him and gone on the run. In order to prove everyone wrong, during one of his club’s football matches, he tries to tackle one of his own teammates. This doesn’t go down well with anyone on the team, especially the coach. While making his way to the team bus, when the reporter who taunted him about his mother during the press conference tries to rile up Yoon Hong-dae once again, he pokes the reporter in the eye, thereby making him the laughing stock of the nation. As punishment and in an attempt to whitewash his image, Yoon Hong-dae’s managers send him to coach a team of homeless people all the way to the World Cup. This journey is supposed to be shot and directed by Lee So-min, who hopes to pay off her loans with the documentary. On top of that, each of the team members (Kim Hwan-dong, Jeon Hyo-bong, Son Beom-soo, Kim In-sun, Jeon Moon-soo, and Young-jin) has a chip on their shoulder that they need to deal with.
It’s baffling how well Byeong-heon Lee handles a plethora of characters, each with a completely different set of aspirations and issues, in Dream without losing their levity or depth. Yoon Hong-dae is dealing with the immense pressure of being a failure and the weight of making his team look disrespectful. His estranged and wacky relationship with his on-the-run mother is something that constantly bothers him. So he has to choose whether he’s going to be a good person or a has-been with no future. Lee So-min comes off as the punching bag initially, as she’s merely supposed to document everything. But she becomes a conduit for a dense commentary on storytelling and the exploitation of misery, which eventually transitions into empathy. Kim Hwan-dong represents greed. Jeon Hyo-bong shows the consequences of being too nice. Son Beom-soo exhibits typical male insecurity. Kim In-Sun is synonymous with severe heartbreak. Jeon Moon-soo probably suffers from delusions of grandeur. And there’s Young-jin, who, for the sake of not spoiling, is unable to fully be who he actually is.
The common thread that connects all of these characters, apart from football, is economic inequality, which is something that can hit us at any second. Unless we are uber-rich with a room full of cash to fall back on, we are susceptible to bankruptcy. Even our insurance can amount to nothing if we cannot access it due to some loophole that the authorities want to exploit. That is a systemic issue that points towards the lack of proper infrastructure and planning and the over-reliance on capitalism. And Byeong-heon Lee understands how helpless the common folk are in the face of such a daunting monster. So, in addition to highlighting how backbreaking it is to survive in this economy and deal with the cogs (inhumane humans) in this relentless machine, he shows that there’s humor and heart to be found in this unending fight for survival. At the cost of sounding repetitive, it is truly mind-boggling how he overlaps plot threads to land multiple jokes and multiple tear-jerking moments at the same time. It’s pure mastery on display.
From the get-go, Byeong-heon Lee makes it clear that Dream is going to be a visually inventive comedy. I have watched and rewatched the whole sequence that’s meant to indicate the immense power of the internet to meme the bloody hell out of a moment of vulnerability, anger, and impulse. Lee’s team has made not one but two 8-bit gaming animations to illustrate the rivalry between Hong-dae and the reporter. Noh Seung-bo’s cinematography and Nam Na-young’s editing can feel a little too simplistic on the surface. But as you sit with it, you’ll begin to notice what they are doing within those apparently plain frames. The way they cut between several shots of characters walking through doors, only to reveal that they’re exiting one place and entering somewhere else entirely, which also indicates how they’ve deviated from their initial opinion, is brilliant. My favorite frame from the entire film is that of Hong-dae celebrating like a maniac while everyone greets Hyo-bong’s daughter. There’s a lot of stunt work involved, especially in the third act during the football matches, and it’s pitch-perfect. I won’t lie; I was a little worried about how it was going to engage me for a whole hour after the film hit a certain peak. I was wrong. It sailed smoothly all the way to the finish.
The performances from the entire cast of Dream are top-notch. All of them have impeccable comic timing. They understand that showing restraint can increase the humor as well as the pain in a scene. Those who are on the football team are given some freedom in terms of doing slapstick or going a little over the top with their dialogue delivery. But even then, you can see them fine-tuning it and holding it back so that their characters feel like living, breathing human beings instead of caricatures? Those on the football team are also tasked with portraying certain disabilities, and they pull it off in a really sensitive fashion, thereby underscoring the fact that nothing can stop a person from achieving their dreams. In comparison to them, Park Seo-joon and Lee Ji-eun’s work is subdued. Their expressions are so subtle and yet so impactful. Their chemistry is brilliant while being completely platonic in nature. Baek Ji-won shows so much complexity in such little screen time because she isn’t a likable character, but she’s trying to be better. The same can be said about Park Myung-hoon, whom you’ll remember from Parasite as the guy who lived in the basement. I could write an entire article detailing the micro reactions and body language of all the actors, so let’s just say every actor, lead or supporting, has delivered in spades.
Dream is a surprising entry on the “best movies of the year” list. It wasn’t on my radar at all. But its humor, heart, and succinct commentary on homelessness swept me off my feet. It’s definitely one of the best comedies of the year. All the performances are amazing enough to stand out amongst their peers from all over the globe. Talking about competition, I genuinely love everything that the movie has to say about success and failure and how we shouldn’t allow them to define us. It doesn’t necessarily state that it’s okay to fail or to compromise during hard times because we have bills to pay. Byeong-heon Lee simply wants us to understand that, regardless of the result, people should come together as a unit to support each other through their worst moments so that they can celebrate their wins unabashedly. And as long as we are having a good time, the very definitions of winning and losing can be flipped. All in all, Dream is a great movie. Please watch it on Netflix, form your own opinion about it, and feel free to share your thoughts with us.