'The Empty Hands': Film Review

One of the strangest martial arts dramas ever made.

Actor-director Chapman To steps away from comedy for his sophomore foray behind the camera, anchored by Stephy Tang’s career-best performance.

A woman dead set on securing ownership of the other half of her father’s apartment experiences a personal epiphany, if not much in the way of redemption, in The Empty Hands, a willfully oddball martial arts drama that rises above its modest station thanks to star Stephy Tang's lead performance. Known largely for her goofy romances and even goofier comedies, writer-director Chapman To, another comedian, gives Tang a chance to show off some real range for a change. Coupled with Cheung King-wai’s upcoming Somewhere Beyond the Mist, which is set to open the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival in November, she could be in line for a career renaissance. To also proves he has loftier ambitions than he demonstrated with his debut, the throwaway Singaporean holiday comedy Let’s Eat!, which he will be able to indulge as long as he remains on Beijing’s black list. Beyond its home turf in Hong Kong, Empty Hands will have limited mainstream appeal in Asia, though it does have a chance at scoring on the art house and festival circuits there (China excepted) and abroad.

A movie wherein the end goal is one half of an apartment could only come from Hong Kong, and it’s the hook upon which To and co-writer Erica Li (Ip Man: The Final Fight, The Sleep Curse) hang their story about Japanese-Chinese slacker Mari Hirakawa (Tang), who finds herself suddenly saddled with her recently deceased father’s (Kurata Yasuaki) karate dojo. Mari is conflicted: She still resents her father for forcing her to train in karate as a child, and now that he’s died she wants to convert the dojo into subdivided apartments and rake in cash as a slum lord (because Hong Kong). Her father, though, left 51 percent of the flat to former student Chan Keung (To), who swoops in and reopens the dojo, with help from the master’s faithful assistant, Mute Dog (Stephen Au). After a few days of terse co-existence, Chan makes Mari a deal: Start training again and be standing at the end of a valid martial arts competition and he’ll sign his half of the apartment over to her. Lose, and he’ll keep teaching. No strings.

The story is a simple enough one about coming to a crossroads in life, reconciliation and forgiveness, and finding the maturity to pick oneself up when things don’t go as planned and carry on. But To and Li frequently usurp expectations of a martial arts movie, beginning with the martial art in question. Karate isn’t the traditional form for Hong Kong cinema, and it makes for a nice change of pace. It also photographs beautifully, with Tam Wai Kai’s images gracefully capturing the flow of forms as Chan and Mari train, with Irving Cheung’s impeccable production design giving the film and Mari’s story a warm, tactile tone. To clearly has an eye for memorable set pieces, and even when they don’t contribute anything substantial to the narrative (we don’t need to see Chan’s gangster backstory as just one), they look really cool.

Structure is where To needs the most work, but Empty Hands manages to keep you engaged through its little details. Side characters like a few local kids at the dojo and Dada Chan (Love Off the Cuff) in a small role as Mari’s vacant, pretty, good-hearted friend spice up the film when it sags. And To doesn't completely abandon his funnyman status, injecting touches of brevity in a few choice spots. But the film belongs to Tang, who makes Mari and all her faults sympathetic, even if she isn’t likable, and empathetic when she isn’t smart, particularly with regards to her married boyfriend. She wants things her way, and Li resists the urge to redeem Mari when they in fact do go her way. By the end of the film, Mari has smartened up, if not completely grown up, and her final decisions are refreshingly unapologetic. Tang allegedly put six months into karate training for the film, and it shows onscreen; she’s completely believable as a lapsed karate prodigy, and action by To, Au and their army of choreographers seals the deal.

Production company: HK Film Production Limited
Cast: Stephy Tang, Chapman To, Kurata Yasuaki, Stephen Au, Dada Chan, Ryan Lau
Director: Chapman To
Screenwriter: Chapman To, Erica Li
Producer: Chapman To, Tang Wai But
Executive producer: Chapman To
Director of photography: Tam Wai Kai
Production designer: Irving Cheung
Costume designer: Irving Cheung
Editor: Allen Leung
Music: Veronica Lee
Action choreography: Chapman To, Stephen Au,
Tommy Leung, Jack Wong, Ryouichi Ishijima, Billy Lui
World sales: GoldenScene

In Cantonese
87 minutes

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