Classic martial arts cinema topics of honour and respect figure heavily in Chapman To’s karate-themed picture The Empty Hands. Other genre elements appear too, from tough training sequences to a high-stakes showdown. Yet as the work turns to personal drama and reflections on Hong Kong as well, To’s unhurried and quirky approach offers a picture that’s far from traditional.
Stephy Tang stars as Hirakawa Mari, the half-Japanese daughter of a karate master (Kurata Yasuaki). Though talented in karate, she ditched it years ago after losing a competition. The relationship with her father became strained, and when he dies his will splits the family home – which doubled as a dojo – between Mari and wayward former student Chan Keung (Chapman To). Soon she has eyes on taking full ownership and dividing the place up with mini rental apartments – an easy and exploitative cash-in on the hot property market. But Keung asks Mari to show respect and proposes a challenge: if she can train up and at least stay standing in a competition fight, the flat will be hers and he’ll be gone. And if Mari can’t make it through, she’ll be the one who has to leave.
For his second work as director, Chapman To delivers highly polished filmmaking with an often serious approach – something that may defy expectations among those who know him best for comedy acting. As Mari knuckles down and gets her life in order, The Empty Hands draws on themes of respecting one’s heritage and traditions, and not selling out for a fast buck. Redemption, too, plays a part as Chan Keung changes from shadowy bodyguard to inspirational figure. Messages are never hammered home in the script, however, and a nostalgic vibe comes across alongside quiet observation on a changing city. One park where Mari’s dad once trained students, for instance, now hosts mainland China-style square dancing. Though some scenes are enigmatic (notably an early encounter with a drunkard), To’s approach is for the most part highly cinematic and engaging, aided by formal lensing and smart music choices as well as perked up with light comic diversions.
When it comes to the karate, To (himself an expert and one of the action choreographers) helms a bruising segment in the ring and shows the rigours of training. The main credits, with Kurata Yasuaki going through his moves outdoors, are an especially bold sequence that recalls the technique demos at the start of ‘70s kung-fu cinema classics.
Lead actress Stephy Tang pushed to shed her past pop-idol persona in The Empty Hands – one of trio of recent films with her in challenging roles. Tang carries much of the picture’s weight on her shoulders, handling family and romance drama as well as karate with a natural-looking performance. Earlier this year she won Best Actress from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society for the role, and a nomination followed for Best Actress in the Hong Kong Film Awards. To serves well as the one who drives Mari forward, and also presents an intriguing character with a complex back story. Rounding out the cast, screen veteran Kurata Yasuaki is a delight to watch in both drama and karate, Stephen Au impresses as a mute teacher at the dojo, and talents with theatre backgrounds take roles as well, including Chow Chi-fai, Roy Szeto and legislator Tanya Chan.
The Empty Hands can be an unusual picture, toying with genre expectations, featuring drawn-out contemplative turns and even taking breaks again and again for ramen. But the offbeat work also feels thoughtful and deliberate as its attractive story unfolds, and it marks To out clearly as one to watch among directing talent.
Chapman To Man-chat (b. 1972) is a Hong Kong actor, producer and director, and has also been a radio host. He started out acting at Asia Television before joining the film industry as an actor in 1999. After building up a diverse acting filmography, with thrillers including the Infernal Affairs trilogy (2002-03) as well as popular comedies and dramas, To branched out to producing with Pang Ho-cheung’s Isabella (2006). He made his directing debut with Let’s Eat! (2016), and The Empty Hands (2017) saw him work as director, producer, writer, actor and action choreographer.
2016 – Let’s Eat!
2017 – The Empty Hands