The Bare-Footed Kid

This period kung-fu piece has a fairly good reputation among HK film fans, but for the most part it left me unmoved. In my mind its main weakness lies at the feet of Aaron Kwok. He is the main character in this film and his performance is as light as cotton candy and feels very much out of synch with everyone else’s performance and also with the atmosphere of the film. It’s unfortunate because everyone else in the film is fairly good – and certainly the plot and production values are fine – but I could never get over how inappropriate Kwok feels for this type of role. The film starts off in a light-hearted manner, but soon turns surprisingly dark and violent, but Kwok’s acting simply is not able to keep pace with these emotional changes.
In his bare feet, Kwok arrives in a small provincial town from the countryside looking for an old friend of his dead father who can hopefully provide him with work. While he is walking the streets of the town – and taking in all the exciting goings-on – he notices Maggie Cheung on two occasions performing charitable acts. It later turns out that his father’s friend – Ti Lung – is a servant to Maggie and Kwok is able to get work at Maggie’s weaving factory. Kwok is basically an innocent happy go lucky kid – with amazing martial arts skills - but he unwittingly sets in motion a series of events that brings on catastrophic results to the people in his life.
From Ti Lung, Kwok receives a pair of plain black shoes and as his status rises during the film so does the quality of his shoes. In a heavy-handed manner, the change of shoes symbolizes both his increased stature and yet also his moral decay.
Kenneth Tsang is the big man in town  – greedy and vicious – and he is trying to gain ownership of Maggie’s company. Heroically, Kwok tries to stop him, but his lack of knowledge regarding the town’s political power structure increases the danger to everyone and Maggie and Ti Lung ask him to go back to his home in the country. Instead, Kwok takes on employment as the martial arts instructor for Tsang’s men and receives a fine new pair of shoes. The plain black ones are quickly discarded, as apparently is his common sense.
The heart of the film and certainly the most interesting part for me was the relationship between Ti Lung and Maggie. She is a widow from an arranged marriage –  never having even known her husband who died when he was twelve – and is of much higher status than Ti Lung – her servant. Yet the unspoken love and respect between them is evident and very powerful. Ti Lung is just very charismatic here and one wishes that Kwok could have borrowed just a few ounces of it. Maggie’s character is underdeveloped and she seems a bit distant throughout.

Kwok has a romance going with a schoolteacher Wu Chien-lien, but this relationship is also burdened by the fact that he is on a much lower social scale than she is. His unthinking actions also bring tragedy into her life.

There is a fair amount of action – primarily involving Kwok, but also Ti Lung on a few occasions. Towards the end it gets very good and has a real emotional impact to it. Much of the action sequences are imaginative, but the fight choreography suffers somewhat due to a mix of sometimes speeding it up too much and then sometimes using Wong Kar Wai slo-mo blurring effects.
So this is a difficult film to judge overall. Certainly if Aaron Kwok is your cup of tea this film will appeal to you, but I find him quite colorless and with no depth to his acting. Still though, there are some really good scenes in the film. It is fast paced and energetic with a few unexpected turns and the story will take you along to its emotional finish. It is directed by Johhny To.

My rating for this film: 7.0