The Bare-footed Kid is unique in Johnnie To’s filmography in that it is his only period martial arts drama, and judging by its quality one can regret he didn’t work more within that genre. In this loose remake of Chang Cheh’s Disciples of Shaolin, Aaron Kwok plays a penniless orphan who seeks out the help of his late father’s friend (Ti Lung), a renegade general who now works under a fake identity in a dyeing factory headed by a kind widow (Maggie Cheung) whose commercial success hinges on a professional secret. They provide the kid with a roof, a job, and most importantly in his eyes, shoes. But when he takes part in a fighting tournament, his impressive martial arts abilities draw the attention of a corrupt official (Eddie Cheung) and a ruthless competitor in the dying business (Kenneth Tsang). He also falls in love with a pretty school teacher (Wu Chien Lien), whom he begs to teach him how to write his name. But soon his naive, suggestible nature and misguided attempts to help his benefactors precipitate a tragic turn of events as he finds himself torn between the lure of power and his devotion to the people who care for him.
Throughout the film, the running metaphor of wearing shoes underlines both his rise in stature and his loss of innocence ; indeed the film is like this metaphor : simple but effective. Told straightforwardly and in a brisk 90 minutes, it is heartfelt, sometimes a bit too melodramatic, but constantly grounded in interesting characters. Ti Lung and Maggie Cheung in particular, beautifully play wounded but strong characters who share a touchingly unspoken love. You’d almost wish they were the film’s primary focus, so strong is their chemistry. But Aaron Kwok is nevertheless quite good in exactly the kind of naive role where he could have been annoying, and he acquits himself quite well already when it comes to martial arts, with a very well rendered mix of carefree strength and puerile brutality. The fighting is superbly choreographed by the legendary Liu Chia Liang, and used sparingly enough that it serves the story rather than having the story serve it like in so many films of that time (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it simply wouldn’t have suited this film). Visually, the role played by dyeing in the story enables Horace Wong, one of Asia’s best directors of photography, to compose gorgeous shots using beautiful dashes of color. And aurally, composer Wu Wai Lap’s wistful main theme is a delight. With so many of Hong Kong’s finest at the top of their game, The Bare-footed Kid is a true pleasure that deserves to be rediscovered.
Long Story Short : A simple, poignant tale that is well-worn but made fresh again by heartfelt performances and assured direction. ****