The Bare-Footed Kid (1993)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-10-27
Summary: See it for Maggie and Ti Lung
“The Bare-Footed Kid” is the story of two couples whose lives are intertwined by happenstance. The story of Miss Ho and Tuan which is one of growing respect and affection between two mature adults who have lived through a lot and who, each for their own reasons, are very reserved concerning their past, is more interesting than that of Kuan and Huang. People and especially couples who have endured and survived are almost always more engrossing than those in the first flush of young love. Some of the most memorable couples in cinema, for example Bogart and Bergman in “Casablanca”, Noiret and Huppert in “Coup de torchon”, Loren and Mastroianni in “Marriage, Italian Style”, fall into this category. Maggie Cheung and Ti Lung are artists of the screen on the level of those giants even though neither of them is really challenged by their roles but both do extraordinarily well within the confines of the script. Both of them throttle back the outsize talent and magnetism that has made them stars and create characters full of repressed energy.

Aaron Kwok as the country bumpkin Kuan and Ng Sin-Lin as the sexy schoolmarm Huang have less to bring to the movie. Kwok is further handicapped because he has a very unsympathetic role in which he has to play an apparently extremely stupid person who not only can’t write his own name but is unable to learn to do so and who also has almost unworldly kung fu skills. He is graceful but unconvincing--a bit too simplemindedly innocent and overly cute with stray tendrils of his long hair always framing his face. There is too great a contrast between his martial arts expertise and the kid from the sticks who is shocked to see shoes for sale at a streetside stand and he doesn't inhabit either role very well. While there may be great young actors who could successfully do this role as written, none come to mind. Huang has little to do other than be the beautiful object of Kuan’s affection. They are no Romeo and Juliet.

On one level The Bare-Footed Kid” is the story of a commercial struggle. Miss Ho owns the Four Seasons weaving works, a company that produces top quality yarn in colors that its competitors can't match. When she refuses to sell her company Ke Hu Pu sends thugs, first to extort her by threatening her top weaver and when that doesn’t work, tries to burn the works under cover of night. It turns out that Maggie herself is the most valuable asset that her company has--the formulae for mixing dye is known only to her. Her rival is more interested in employing her talents than in picking up the plant and equipment that an acquisition of Four Seasons would entail, much like a software giant buying a start-up company in order to get the coding secrets of its resident genius or a luxury conglomerate buying a new label in order to acquire the talent and cache of its designer.

Miss Ho is a mother figure to her workers, sitting at the head of the table during their communal meals, taking care of them when they are in trouble and making sure that they have what they need for their labors. She is as devoted as a mother would be, staying up all night to mix a batch of dye that must be used the next morning to produce product that will save the company. She knew that constant exposure to the volatile chemicals might be fatal and greets the dawn with containers full of dye but already feeling the effects of the poison seeping into her bones. The only antidote is a very unpleasant tasting soup, a meal that Tuan is happy to feed to her spoonful by spoonful. The two of them are clearly meant for each other. After she recovers she takes him on a field trip to gather the right stones and flowers to be used as ingredients in her magical dyes. When Tuan asks why she is doing this since he is just an employee who might leave at any time it is obvious that what he is saying is the opposite of his intentions.

Ti Lung gives a wonderful performance. Tuan is implacably honest, tough, kind, loyal and willing to die for what he believes. In the tradition of many martial arts heroes he is all but indestructible, armored against his foes by his innate nobility of spirit. Unarmed and after being poisoned and stabbed Tuan is more than a match for a squad of opponents with swords. Even being stuck with more arrows than St. Stephen he is credible as someone who not only can continue to fight and but also teach Kuan his father's kung fu moves.

Which is one of the major problems that Kwok as Kuan has—he simply isn’t believable as a martial artist and the wire work, stunt doubling and constructive editing used by the filmmakers couldn’t make him so. Another, as has been pointed out in several reviews here, is the score. It is so bad that it draws attention to its inadequacy and it could be improved by dumping the entire thing and replacing it with fifty or so generic orchestral cues from a production company’s library.

But enough concerning the drawbacks of the film. There are a lot of reasons to enjoy “The Bare-Footed Kid” other than the casting. It is gorgeous to look at with the gaudy parti-colored yarn produced by Four Seasons a fitting metaphor for the gorgeous hues and realistic textures provided by the art directors and set designers. Some of the simplest images are the most beautiful and effective including one of Maggie walking slowly in the rain under her translucent umbrella, the scene awash in deep pastels. There is a scene with Miss Ho waiting in her room and seeing the silhouette of Tuan appear at her door that is breathtaking. She is lit from one side, bathed in a soft light. The camera slowly pulls toward her and as her face gets larger on the screen the conflicting emotions of hope, fear, love and scorn stream across her face and eyes. It is a devastating scene but also a potential minefield of maudlin pathos that Maggie Cheung, Johnnie To and Horace Wong execute seamlessly. The final showdown between Tuan and Kuan on one side and battalions of bad guys on the other was exemplary in its brutality and viciousness—there was a lot of fake blood used on this set.

This is a difficult film to rate. It could be classed a failure due to the weak script and the casting of an inadequate actor in a role that might have been beyond a young Laurence Olivier but has enough good parts to make it worth watching.
Reviewer Score: 7