The career of director Johnnie To can be pretty easily split into two phases. From the late 1990s he established his own production company, Milkyway Image, and embarked on a hugely successful career directing idiosyncratic crime films, romantic comedies, and character dramas. Prior to that time, he worked in a far more traditional manner: his earlier films are much more in keeping with the general style of Hong Kong cinema, and while often commercially successful lack a strong directorial voice.
The Bare-Footed Kid is a case-in-point. Nominally a remake of Chang Cheh’s 1975 film Disciples of Shaolin, it is a slickly made and entertaining martial arts adventure that blends comedy, melodrama, and action. Unlike many of To’s later, more famous works, The Bare-Footed Kid very much keeps to its own lane in terms of genre conventions and audience expectations. Films like this are plentiful throughout the history of Hong Kong cinema. It delivers precisely what its audience wants to see, and does not mess about.
Aaron Kwok plays Kwan Fung-yiu, a poor and illiterate young man who travels from his village to the nearby capital in search of his late father’s friend Tuen Ching-wan (Ti Lung). Once there he stumbles into a conflict between two rival dye factories: one run by a local gangster (Kenneth Tsang), and the other by the generous and beautiful Pak Siu-kwan (Maggie Cheung).
There is a particularly earnest quality to The Bare-Footed Kid that will either enchant or irritate, based upon individual taste. Subtlety is not the film’s strong suit: the good guys are straight-forward and honourable, and the bad guys all but twirl their moustaches. Kwan in particular is honest and friendly to the point of outright naivete. The film’s first half plays comedically, and occasionally lapses from charming into grating as Kwan attempts to fit in and woo a pretty girl (Jacklyn Wu). The second half becomes much more serious, as Tuen Ching-wan’s troubled past catches up with him and the gangster Hak Wo-Po (Tsang) makes a move on Pak’s factory. The action in this later period is cleanly choreographed and well shot, and the story compensates for the earlier frivolity rather well.
The film captures Aaron Kwok at a relatively early stage of his career; still more of a pop star starring in movies than a respectable actor in his own right. As a result his performance feels rather limited, and he rides along based more on audience goodwill and screen presence than acting talent. He is supported by a great supporting cast, however, and while nothing in the screenplay particularly taxes Ti Lung or Maggie Cheung their gentle, understated, and tragic romance brings a lot of value to the whole film.
This is solid entertaining stuff, and an excellent example of early 1990s martial arts cinema. Glimmerings of To’s later inventiveness are evident – as they are for screenwriter Yau Nai-hoi, who would write several of To’s later smash hits. Horace Wong’s cinematography is fluid and wonderfully colourful. The Bare-Footed Kid is a classic example of a film doing exactly what it advertises on the tin: nothing more, nothing less.