In his martial arts remake, Johnnie To focuses on drama, for better or worse.
“Kill him and the gold is yours.”
You get to a point when watching old martial arts films where it becomes difficult to write a review that isn’t so samey. To avoid being lumped in with others in the Great Collection of Martial Arts Films I Lump Together in my Memory, the movie needs something to make it stand out from the crowd: something unforgettable. Early Jackie Chan wowed us with Buster Keaton-inspired stunts. Stephen Chow is the master of over-the-top slapstick. Donnie Yen’s raw talent makes even his worst movies stand out. Without those, many of Hong Kong’s greatest would have no doubt faded into obscurity. Much like westerns in the … well, west, these stories are so plentiful that if nothing imprints itself into the audience’s memory then there’s another one around the corner waiting to do just that.
I say all this because I struggle to think of what made The Bare-Footed Kid stick – if anything. The story is of the young, shoeless and illiterate Kwan (Aaron Kwok), who makes his way to the capital after the death of his father to stay with a family friend, Tuen (Ti Lung). Tuen is able to get him a job at the dye factory where he works: the Four Seasons Weaver, run by Pak (Maggie Cheung). Nearby a rival factory, the Dragon Spinners, is run by extremely shady guy Hak (Kenneth Tsang), who has also set up a fighting pit where workers from both factories slug it out for money.
You can probably already see where just about all of this is going, and I’d like to say that The Bare-Footed Kid avoids many of the clichés but we all know this isn’t true. So we can pretty guess that the cruel Hak does everything he can to make his inferior dyes the best in town, even setting fire to the Four Seasons, and the idealistic new magistrate Yuen (Cheung Siu-fai) struggles to get enough proof to arrest him. Of course, our bumbling, naïve main character stumbles into all of this, and thankfully knows how to fight better than just about everyone.
There isn’t heaps to say about the Bare-Footed Kid, especially since I haven’t seen the film it’s based on. It does coast a little on the likeability of Kwok, but that’s understandable, and his chemistry with young teacher Lin (Jacklyn Wu) is solid. Considering the tone the rest of the movie has going, Kwok’s character is a little too wide-eyed and innocent. He gollys and goshes his way through most of the film with a sort of goofy foolishness and naivety that is closer to something we’d see in comedies which mercifully begins to mellow out once the shit hits the fan.
Because if there’s anything I remember about this film, it’s the tone. While never really going into comedic territory (save for some antics near the beginning), The Bare-Footed Kid starts out light enough, and progressively gets darker. Once Kwan gets more integrated in this dye factory-battle situation, the drama ratchets up, right up until the story strikes a pretty hard-hitting and bleak finale. If it had started out this way and kept it up throughout, I think I’d have remembered it a lot more.
This is the sort of film that does everything it sets out to do well but without ever really standing out: in terms of plot, there’s not a lot you haven’t seen already in a million settings. I’m reminded of the rival schools in Magnificent Butcher, except this time it’s rival dye factories who slug it out for whatever reason. As I was watching, I did become more invested as the movie went along, but I’d hardly call it recommended viewing. It has some good action sequences, some good dramatic and comedic scenes, and some good performances – but barefoot or not it never is able to tip-toe across the line to great.
Verdict: The Bare-Footed Kid is a fun, if passable, hour and a half of decent martial arts and drama, but not much else.
Overall entertainment: 6.5/10
Sex: A raunchy picture show/10
Women dressed as men: Has this ever fooled anyone in real life?
Flashback song sequence: Unneeded, really
The Bare-Footed Kid (1993)
Also known as: 赤腳小子
Director: Johnnie To
Writer: Yau Nai-hoi
Aaron Kwok – Kwan Fung-yiu
Ti Lung – Tuen Ching-wan
Maggie Cheung – Pak Siu-kwan
Jacklyn Wu – Wah Wong-lin
Paul Chun – Mr. Wah
Kenneth Tsang – Hak Wo-po
Cheung Siu-fai – Magistrate Yuen Tin-yau
Wong Yat-fei – Kuei