Empty hands and empty hearts take centre stage in Chapman To’s sports drama.
“I can’t hit you myself. So I had to have other people do it for me.”
If I’ve learnt anything from Cobra Kai – the television sequel series to the Karate Kid films featuring two grown men who can’t get past the fact they once competed in the same tournament together – it’s that karate problems need karate solutions. This is very true of The Empty Hands, Chapman To’s sophomore film as director. Mari Hirakawa (Stephy Tang) is a half-Japanese woman with a natural talent for karate but whose strict father Akira (famed martial artist and action star Yasuaki Kurata) made her train in his homemade dojo, much to her displeasure.
After Akira passes away she plans to shut down the dojo and convert the apartment into a series of smaller rooms to lease out. Things don’t work out the way she planned, however, when she learns that her father only left her 49% of the business, with the other half going to former pupil, the karate-loving Chan Kent (Chapman To). They naturally don’t get along, and when things start heating up Chan challenges her to a match: and if she can remain standing after three rounds, she can keep the apartment and do with it what she pleases.
Straight off the bat, I have to point out that it was a bold choice of To to go the dramatic route for what, at least at first glance, should be a straightforward odd-couple-style comedy. The karate shenanigans practically write themselves. Instead, he shows a striking amount of restraint here, choosing, along with co-writer Erica Li to create a story that doesn’t hide its emotional core behind jokes, instead putting it out on full display. The confusion that comes from being forced to do something you know you like and are good at can hurt, doubly so when this happens as a child and it’s a topic he’s happy to show the full dramatic force of.
It’s a pain that Mari carries with her throughout her childhood and adult life and wants nothing more than to put it all behind her the second she gets a chance. She has to learn to enjoy karate on its own terms, and not whilst being pressured by her father. The same is true for her love life, and she finds herself at the mercy of a real shitty radio DJ called Calvin (Ryan Lau) who pretends to love her more than he clearly does. Its message does get a bit muddled as it is the outside influence of men like Chan (and by extension her father who set this entire thing up in his will) that ultimately gets her to take karate back into her heart, but at least she realises that Calvin is a piece of shit on her own.
Much of the film’s success is due to tang’s fantastic performance. She spends the majority of the film surly and standoffish, but the combination of smart writing and her charisma means she comes across as understandably annoyed both at the men in her life but also herself. The rest of the characters are a bit more one note, especially Akira who has a near-comical level of Japanese stoicism during the flashbacks we see him in. He has a perpetual grimace and you can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t written more as a stereotype than an actual character.
Chapman To keeps things moving at a steady but slow pace, so it’s hardly a shock when the title and opening credits come on just before the twenty minute mark but also surprising that I didn’t even notice. Most tellingly: this is a martial arts sports movie with a total of one full fight in it. The Empty Hands is Chapman To’s second film as director and while he shows he’s no stranger to juggling roles and dabbling in drama, he strains a bit under the weight of acting and directing in something so serious and so artsy. The dreamlike sequences are gorgeous, and the atmospheric quality of the cinematography make for some really good individual scenes but it doesn’t come together as coherently as I think he’d have liked. The pacing is a bit all over the place, but at least it keeps you guessing. Still, it was interesting to see how he was able to turn a trite, almost laughably after-school-esque story into a meaningful and poignant drama. It’s no black belt, but at least has the patience and discipline that would make any karate sensei very proud.
Verdict: A different sort of sports drama, The Empty Hands is well made but its style over substance approach means it sometimes feels , well, just a tad empty.
The Empty Hands is playing as part of the Chinese Visual Festival’s Focus Hong Kong. Check it, and everything else on offer, here.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Sex: So mild that Calvin retains his pristine hair afterwards
Safest friends: Are all boobs, no brain
Boob squeezing: Some!
Ramen: So much goddamn ramen
Favourite one-scene character: Bulldog
Honestly what was the point of Szeto as a character?
If I do not love the motherland: the sun will explode
The Empty Hands (2017)
Also known as: Hung sau dou
Director: Chapman To
Writers: Erica Li, Chapman To
Stephy Tang – Mari Hirakawa
Chapman To – Chan Kent
Yasuaki Kurata – Akira Hirakawa
Stephen Au – Mute Dog
Dada Chan – Peggy
Ryan Lau – Calvin
Roy Szeto – Szeto
Michelle Lo – Bulldog