The Empty Hands (空手道, Chapman To, 2017)

“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. 


The Empty Hands streams in the UK 9th to 15th February as part of Focus Hong Kong

Original trailer (English subtitles)

All’s Well, Ends Well (家有囍事, Clifton Ko, 1992)

Now an annual institution, the “New Year Movie” was only just beginning to find its feet at, arguably, the end of a golden age in Hong Kong cinema. Clifton Ko’s All’s Well, Ends Well (家有囍事) is often regarded as one of the key movies that made the genre what it is today, taking the box office by storm and spawning a small franchise with a series of sequels, the latest of which All’s Well, Ends Well 2020, is released this year. The original, however, is a classic “mo lei tau” nonsense comedy starring master of the form Stephen Chow as an improbable lothario chased into domesticity by the beautiful Maggie Cheung. 

The plot, such as it is, revolves around three brothers – Moon (Raymond Wong Pak-ming), Foon (Stephen Chow Sing Chi), and So (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing). Oldest son Moon is a regular salaryman married to devoted housewife Leng (Sandra Ng Kwan-yue). Though it’s his seventh wedding anniversary, he’s late for the family dinner at home with his parents and brothers because he’s entertaining his mistress, Sheila (Sheila Chan), instead. Foon, meanwhile, is a disk jockey on local radio filling in for a friend taking a day off to get married. Eccentric movie enthusiast Holliyok (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) rings into the show to complain that she feels lost and lonely, so Foon takes her address and phone number under the pretext of gifting her a laserdisc. So, meanwhile, is an effeminate young man who teaches flower arranging and clashes with his tomboyish, motorcycle riding “auntie” Mo-shang (Teresa Mo Shun-kwan) who practices extremely aggressive massage techniques. 

As this is a New Year movie, the conclusion we’re moving towards is the repairing of the family unit with the two unmarried brothers eventually pairing off, culminating in a mass wedding in which mum (Lee Heung-kam) and dad (Kwan Hoi-san) can participate too. Before that, however, we’re dropped into the increasingly affluent world of Hong Kong in the early ‘90s in which men like Moon think they’re king. Leng, meanwhile, laments that she married her husband after high school and unlike him does not have the option to quit her “job”, forced to serve the two “company directors” day and night with no overtime or double pay. Quit is exactly what she does do, however, when confronted with Moon’s infidelity. After promising to take her out for a swanky dinner, he gets distracted by his mistress and ends up getting rid of Leng to have dinner with Sheila after which he is so drunk she has to carry him to his own door. Sheila may have thought she was pushing herself into a middle class way of life, but being a housewife is hard work too, especially with Moon’s rather demanding if eccentric parents who suffer separation anxiety from their TV set and prefer to be vacuumed down to keep themselves clean while they watch. 

Leng, not quite having intended to really leave, is forced to reassert herself as an independent woman. She re-embraces her love of singing, getting one of the few jobs that’s open to women in her situation – working in a karaoke box. Eventually, she glams up and becomes a “credible” rival to Sheila, who has now become the housebound “hag” resented by the regretful (but perhaps not remorseful) Moon who has learned absolutely nothing at all about being a good husband.  

Meanwhile, Foon romances Holliyok through movie roleplay, cycling through Pretty Woman, to hit of the day Ghost, before heading into the darkness of Misery, and the unexpected salvation of Terminator 2. After himself getting caught with another girl, Foon gets hit on the head with an egg and “develops” a “brain disease” that causes him to lose his mind. Holliyok swears revenge, but, inexplicably, can’t seem to give up on the idea of Foon’s love while he remains just as pompously macho as Moon, believing women are things you win and then discard. 

Counter to all that, So and Mo-shang occupy a rather ambiguous space – quite clearly coded as gay complete with offscreen lovers they communicate with only by letter until they make a surprise appearance to make a surprise announcement. First feeling a spark of unexpected attraction while making some electrical repairs in the kitchen, they are eventually shocked straight – So transforming into a pillar of conventional masculinity, and Mo-shang suddenly wearing her hair long (did it grow overnight?), putting on makeup and dressing in ladies’ fashions. Thus, their gender non-conforming natures have been in some sense “corrected” by “love’ or “electroshock” depending on how you choose to look at it, assuming of course that their newfound romance is not just a clever ruse to neatly undercut the use of their homosexuality as a punchline. In any case, as the title says, all’s well that end’s well, and the Shang household seems to have regained its harmony, rejecting Sheila and all she stands for to embrace true family values just in time for the festive season.  


Screened in association with Chinese Visual Festival.

Rerelease trailer (traditional Chinese/English subtitles)