Chapman To writes, directs and stars in this Hong Kong-based karate drama that transforms Stephy Tang from a frivolous starlet into a legitimate martial arts performer. Tang plays the half-Chinese, half-Japanese daughter of a karate master, who discovers upon her father’s death that she must share ownership of his prized dojo with a disgraced former pupil. Eschewing many of the familiar tropes and cliches of the redemptive sports drama, To creates a unique and absorbing oddity that suggests the comedic performer may have a promising future behind the camera.
Growing up with her karate instructor father (the increasingly ubiquitous Japanese veteran Yasuaki Kurata), Mari Hirakawa (Stephy Tang - Love is not all Around, La Lingerie) was forced into training at a young age, loathing every minute of it. But after losing a competition, she quits. Years later, her father’s death means Mari can finally sell the dojo and get on with her life. To her horror, she discovers that she will only inherit 49% of the property she has lived in her entire life. The remaining 51% has been left to Chan Keung (Chapman To), a former student and triad member who has just been released from prison.
Keung, along with long-time student Mute Dog (Stephen Au - Unbeatable, Trivisa), is eager to restore the dojo to its former glory, despite Mari’s protests. Seeing her home overrun once again with screaming kids only adds to Mari’s woes, after her radio DJ boyfriend (former news anchor Ryan Lau) refuses to leave his wife. In an effort to galvanise the young woman back into action, Keung challenges Mari to take up her karate training once again, and enter an upcoming competition. If she can survive a single bout, he will hand over his share of the dojo.
After last year’s little-seen Malaysian comedy Let’s Eat, The Empty Hands marks Chapman To’s first major foray into directing. To has already produced a number of films in recent years, including the controversial Herman Yau efforts Sara and The Mobfathers, and The Empty Hands shores up the actor’s desire to be taken seriously within the local industry, rather than simply create easy-money vehicles for his own comedic talents.
To has undergone a profound physical transformation in recent years, along the way earning himself a black belt in karate. No doubt inspiring some elements of the story here, The Empty Hands is a love letter to the sport, its disciplines and rituals, while food-lovers will be hankering for a bowl of ramen long before the credits roll. But beyond that, the film shows a filmmaker in search of his voice, bold enough to experiment and, on occasion fail, as well as step back from centre stage and allow a fellow performer to take the limelight. For while To takes second billing, as well as directing, co-writing (with Erica Li) and being one of half a dozen credited action choreographers, it is the diminutive Stephy Tang who proves the film’s true star.
A seasoned volleyball player in her youth who represented Hong Kong numerous times, there is little in the 15-year film career of the former Cookies lead singer to suggest that Stephy Tang could carry the lead in a martial arts film. But whether in the ring or training on the mat, she displays a strength, flexibility and fluidity of movement that is never less than wholly convincing. In fact, whenever the film trains its focus on karate, it proves wholly engrossing, with gorgeous production design that borders on the fetishistic.
The Empty Hands is far from perfect, however, and many of the film’s weaknesses can be found in the script. An inordinate amount of time is spent detailing Keung’s time in the triads, and his redemptive decision to turn on his superiors, even if it means a stretch in prison. However, following this elaborate backstory, all this information proves irrelevant to the drama that follows. Similarly, Mari’s relationship woes do nothing but undermine a character who otherwise seems strong to the point of obstinance. The young actors who play Keung's students are also crying out for more screen time.
Sports movie fans will be relieved at just how many training montage sequences there are in The Empty Hands, as Mari prepares for the fight to secure her future. But To dedicates just as much time and effort to sequences at the ramen bar, where little goes on beyond some very enthusiastic slurping. There are glimpses of Chapman To’s trademark deadpan humour peppered throughout, but the script could certainly have benefited from more. Instead, To the director seems intent on exploring impressionistic, almost surreal compositions and sequences that veer wildly from the commercial nature of the material.
While at times lacking narrative focus, The Empty Hands should still scratch the itch for viewers curious about the more ritualistic side of martial arts, while announcing Chapman To the filmmaker as a very different creative entity to Chapman To the performer. The latter has already established himself as a firm favourite both at home and even abroad, while the former appears to be just getting started. Where Stephy Tang goes next is anybody’s guess, but based on her transformative performance here, her days of hackneyed romcoms are long gone.