The Empty Hands (Hung sau dou)

Hong Kong (2017) Dir. Chapman To

Sometimes there is no escaping your destiny no matter how hard you try to avoid it or leave it in the past. If it is meant to be, it will be, just be thankful if yours is one that will have a positive effect on your life. Always be open to following this path, as the road to resuming the journey will be a bumpy one.

Akira Hirakawa (Yasuaki Kurata), a Japanese karate teacher living in Hong Kong passes away, leaving his daughter Mari (Stephy Tang) with his dojo. A former karate prodigy herself, Mari turned her back on it when she lost a competition as ten year-old, claiming she hated karate as her father forced her to train for it. As an adult, Mari is in a nothing job and involved with a married radio DJ, Calvin (Ryan Lau), widening the rift with her father.

Wanting to rid herself of her past, Mari decides to turn the dojo into a slum apartment but is shocked to discover her father left her 49% of the dojo, the controlling interest going to a former pupil, Chan Kent (Chapman To). Recently released from prison, Kent returns to the dojo and wants to restart the classes but Mari refuses to co-operate, so Kent issues a challenge – enter an MMA fight and if Mari can survive, he’ll sign over the dojo to her.

There is a quiet irony to be found in the fabric of The Empty Hands regarding the central conceit of stepping out of one’s comfort zone, as both director and star of this film do exactly that. Chapman To is noted for his goofy, often ribald comedies, like Vulgaria and Naked Ambition 3D, whilst Stephy Tang is usually fluffy eye candy or token female sidekick. In his second directorial outing, To presents a thoughtful if slightly obtuse tale of self-discovery and redemption with a unique twist.

Chinese and Hong Kong martial arts movies are synonymous with Kung Fu so to see the Japanese practice of karate be the fighting discipline of choice is unusual, but makes a refreshing change. Both are spiritual in their philosophy and deadly in execution so the similarities outweigh the differences, yet this doesn’t make them interchangeable either, which we can assume is what To and co-writer Erica Li was hoping to impart here.

Fight fans may be disappointed to learn this isn’t a fully-fledged action film, with just two major battles and the occasional training sequence on offer, but the karate is a means to an end. This is the tale of a woman who has lost her way in life and needs to reconnect with her past in order to move forward, but has to overcome the biggest hurdle alone – herself.

Mari is not a likeable or sympathetic character, rarely smiling, wants everything her own way and seemingly contrary for the sake of it. Despite what she says and believes, Mari did appear to enjoy karate as a youngster and set herself the goal of reaching black belt status. She was doing well, quickly gaining her brown belt until she lost the contest Akira entered her in without consultation, and quit karate on the spot.  

Kent on the other hand, was a skilled pupil but it went to his head and was expelled from the dojo for getting into fights to show off. Inevitably, he ended up working for a crime boss as his driver, until witnessing his boss’s penchant for underage sexual partners and does something about it. Now seeking his own redemption, Kent decides to honour his late master by continuing his dojo’s legacy but Mari won’t play ball.

By way of a counterbalance to these emotional drifters, both are flanked by two people seemingly more capable to carry on in life despite their shortcomings. The dojo’s current teacher Mute Dog (Stephen Au) is a silent hulk making ends meet losing at wrestling shows, whilst Mari’s best friend Peggy (Dada Chan) is a busty masseuse who is unlucky in love for her refusal to indulge in pre-marital sex. Both continue to thrive through missing one crucial thing Mari and Kent share – ego.

It may be predictable that Mari would reluctantly accept Kent’s challenge to get her own way but the script manages to avoid many of the clichés that would make it predictable. We are invested in this because it isn’t your typical zero to hero sports drama since the stakes are different, with an endgame that would normally favour the antagonist not the protagonist – not to mention these roles are blurred, as the person acting honourably is the one with the criminal record.

Reportedly, Stephy Tang trained for six months to get into shape and learn karate and the evidence is not just on display but very impressive too. Her challenge fight, under K1 rules against a seasoned kick boxer, may be short and less flashy than Kung Fu clashes but makes up for this in sheer realistic brutality. Tang is credible and convincing in both striking and receiving the blows, whilst the requisite grace in the ceremonial aspect of karate training is observed beautifully.

Deservedly rewarded on the Hong Kong awards circuit for this tour de force role, this is hopefully the start of a new chapter in Tang’s career, having proven she can carry a film as the lead, and act emotionally and with nuance, pulling off the impossible in making someone as obnoxious as Mari into a respectable character. She has commendable support, with Chapman To also surprising us with depth and competent karate skills, but this is Tang’s film.

Occasionally tripping over itself in trying too hard to be different, The Empty Hands has too much going for it not to be deemed a success, proving there is more to both its star and director. Genre conventions are toyed with but never fully embraced, rarely has a drama been so raw and so bloody and all the better for it.

Currently available on the Focus Hong Kong Online Festival Feb 9th -16th