“You have to remember. You’ll always meet someone stronger than you. They might beat you down, but no matter what you need to have the courage to face it.” the defeated heroine of Chapman To’s second feature The Empty Hands (空手道) is reminded by her rediscovered mentor pushing her towards a literal reclaiming of her space in accepting her father’s legacy. The title, a literal translation of the characters which form the word “karate”, is perhaps also an allusion to the heroine’s sense of powerlessness and displacement even as she learns to rediscover a source of strength in that which she had previously dismissed as a worthless burden.
30-something Mari Hirakawa (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) is the daughter of a Japanese émigré, Akira (Yasuaki Kurata), who came to Hong Kong in 1972 on a work transfer and later married a local woman. Teaching karate as a hobby in his spare time, he eventually discovered that in the Hong Kong of the late 70s and 80s, martial arts was a valuable commodity and so he sunk all his savings into buying a sizeable flat in Causeway Bay, converting the living area into a Dojo with the family relegated to neighbouring rooms. The business did well but the family floundered and when Mari’s mother asked Akira to mortgage the dojo to help out her brother who ran into financial trouble during the 89 crisis his refusal and the uncle’s subsequent suicide led her to leave the family. A lonely child, Mari complains that her overly strict father forced her to practice karate against her will, something which she gave up as a brown belt after an unexpected tournament defeat swearing off the practice ever since.
When Akira dies suddenly, however, Mari is forced into a reconsideration of her life choices on discovering that he has left only 49% of the apartment/dojo to her with the controlling share entrusted to a former pupil, Chan Keung (Chapman To Man-Chat). Prior to this discovery, she had been cynically planning to subdivide the apartment into seven units, renting out six and living in the seventh solely on her proceeds from exploiting Hong Kong’s notoriously difficult housing market. Mari is, it has to be said, often difficult to like, defiantly aloof and with a healthy contempt for other people even throwing back a racial slur, albeit with a pinch of irony, at a little boy who’s been frequenting the dojo expressly in order to fight back against the discrimination he faces in everyday life as a member of the Indian community. This might be something you’d expect Mari to show a little more empathy for but she seems ambivalent in her sense of identity immediately introducing herself as Japanese on giving her name to man who works at the radio station where she gets a job as a security guard and with whom she drifts into a doomed affair.
Mari’s affair with a married man is another thing of which she believes her father disapproved, but it’s also a reflection of her low self-esteem and awkward relationship with paternal authority in that she continues to seek but is afraid to ask for approval from emotionally distant men. She claims to have only one friend, Peggy (Dada Chan Ching), whom she somewhat cruelly dismisses as “all boobs and no brain”, explaining to her that what she likes about Ka Chun (Ryan Lau Chun-Kong) is his “loyalty” ironically admiring his refusal to leave his childhood sweetheart wife but also confident that he will one day choose her. Beaten down by life, Mari has perhaps backed away from the fight passively retreating while refusing to deal with her conflicted sense of identity and desire. She resents the implication that she petulantly jacked in karate after a single defeat destroyed her sense of confidence, but as we discover it is indeed her fear of failure which has been holding her back. Chan Keung’s bet that he will sign over his share of the apartment if she can remain standing, even if she loses, after three rounds in an upcoming competition is then a subtle way of getting her stand up again and rediscover a sense of confidence to fight for herself in the arena of life.
Ironically enough, Chan Keung had been kicked out of the dojo for doing just that, told off for using karate to prove himself when its true purpose should be in the defence of others in need of help. He rediscovers the true spirit of karate after rescuing a little girl from a predatory triad, but Akira’s mission is also one of redemption for Chan Keung as he patiently mentors the originally reluctant Mari back towards an acceptance both of her father and of her relationship with karate along with the confidence that counters defeat. A meditative mood piece from the hitherto comedian To anchored by a stand out performance from Tang (who apparently spent six months training for the role) pushing back against glossy rom-com typecasting, The Empty Hands is less martial arts movie than gentle life lesson as its beaten-down heroine learns to fight her way out of existential malaise towards a more forgiving future.
Original trailer (English subtitles)