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)

Baby : The Secret Diary of A Mom To Be (Baby復仇記, Luk Yee-sum, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“You’re finally a mom just like us!” a supportive friend exclaims in Luk Yee-sum’s pregnancy comedy Baby: The Secret Diary of a Mom to Be (Baby復仇記), “women are destined to be moms, that makes your life perfect”. A humorous take on maternal anxiety, Luk’s otherwise warm and empathetic screenplay cannot help but feel slightly out of touch in its wilfully mixed messages, as evidenced in the total lack of irony in the above statements. While the heroine is encouraged to have it all, her existence is still defined by the ability to bear children, all her other achievements apparently meaningless should she “fail” to become a mother while the choice not to is so invalid as not even to be considered. 

In her early 30s, Carmen (Dada Chan Ching) is a high-flying career woman who has elected not to have children with her basketball player husband, Oscar (Kevin Chu Kam-yin). She’s just been (verbally) offered a big promotion managing a new office in Vietnam, while her circle of friends are all housewives and mothers. Carmen had in any case believed that she would not be able to have a child due to suffering with polycystic ovary syndrome, but the discovery that she may be expecting could not have come at a worse time especially as her overbearing mother-in-law Margaret (Candice Yu On-on) has hired a weird maternity coach (Tam Yuk-ying) to help Carmen fulfil her purpose in life by providing a grandchild. She considers taking an abortion pill without telling Oscar about the baby but when he finds out by accident they decide to go through with the pregnancy. 

Of course, that means Vietnam is off. According to her boss they wanted someone “right away” and so sent a colleague instead. “Maybe you’ll think differently after your baby is born” the boss adds, not quite suggesting her career’s over but definitely implying her prospects have been significantly reduced. Meanwhile, the other women in the office no longer seem to take her seriously. Everyone is telling her to take things easy, leave the heavy work to the young ones, as if she’s just biding her time to motherhood and an early retirement from the employment scene. 

Carmen’s anxieties are in many way in regards to the ways her life will change along with the impending loss of freedom and independence. She resents the baby for messing up her career plans, while fearing that she’s being asked to abandon her own hopes and desires in order to become someone’s mum rather than just someone. It doesn’t help that Margaret has already more or less taken over, wielding both her economic advantage and her position as grandma-in-waiting to exert control over Carmen’s living situation. She moves maternity coach Tam into the couple’s home, the pair of them boxing up her evening attire and designer shoes as things a mother no longer needs without bothering to ask her, literally ripping away the vestiges of her old life while refusing her any kind of autonomy. 

Yet her reluctance is reframed as childhood trauma in dysfunctional relationships with her own mother who was apparently largely absent playing mahjong, and a nun at her school who was perhaps a surrogate maternal figure she was unfairly ripped away from when her mother ran out of money for the fees and she had to leave. Carmen’s lack of desire for motherhood is then framed as a kind of illness that must be cured so her life will “perfect”, the implication being that the free choice not to have children is not valid, only a corruption of the feminine ideal born of failed maternity. By paying a visit to Sister Cheung and then to her mother (who remains off screen) she can “repair” her problematic attitude, eventually submitting herself entirely to Margaret’s maternal authority in recognising that her overbearing caring also comes from a place of love and kindness even as it reinforces conservative social codes. 

In a surprising role reversal, meanwhile, Oscar adopts the position of the trophy husband whose career ambitions are perhaps unfairly dismissed by Carmen who has the better prospects for offering financial security. With impending fatherhood on the horizon he tries to assert his masculinity in looking for a steady job but soon realises he has no real skills for the workplace and is later inducted into a strange dad’s club which provides odd jobs and a place for harried fathers to hang out playing video games in escape from their stressful family man lives. A kind and patient man Oscar is perhaps understandably irritated when Carmen ironically snaps at him that he should give up his career ambitions to facilitate hers but later signals his willingness to become a househusband which reinforces the broadly positive have it all message while problematically continuing the narrative that a woman’s fulfilment is found only in motherhood and without it her life is incomplete. 

Nevertheless, Baby: Secret Diary of a Mom to Be has its charms in its empathetic examination of maternal anxiety while highlighting if not quite condemning the costs of living in a patriarchal society. Carmen’s “happily married” friends each have problems of their own they’re afraid to share lest it damage the image of familial bliss they’ve been keen to cultivate. Their secret unhappiness is strangely never a factor in Carmen’s decision making, nor is the quest for that ideal ever critiqued despite Carmen’s eventual success in finally having it all. Still despite its mixed messaging and subtly conservative overtones, Luk’s sophisticated dialogue and quirky sensibility lend a sense of fun and irony to a sometimes dark exploration of impending parenthood.


Baby : The Secret Diary of A Mom To Be streams in Canada from 20th August to 2nd September as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Missbehavior (恭喜八婆, Pang Ho-cheung, 2019)

Missbehaviour poster 1Pang Ho-cheung has become the king of salty, vulgar yet somehow sophisticated Cantonese comedy. Strangely, and then again maybe not, he’s never ventured into the realms of the New Year movie, until now. Missbehavior (恭喜八婆) returns the director to the bawdiness of Vulgaria but brings with it the sense of warmth and cheerful irony that marked his genial Love trilogy. A timely reminder that life’s too short for pointless grudges and maybe you should check in on that friend you haven’t seen in a while, Missbehavior is a grown up New Year treat that as silly as it often is has genuine heart and a cheerful, compassionate spirit.

The central crisis revolves around June (June Lam Siu-ha) – a model employee well used to putting up with the ridiculous requests of her boss who now demands to be known as “Luna Fu” (Isabella Leung Lok-Sze) after returning from maternity leave. Worried the new office girl Irene who is none too bright will end up offending an important client, June is charged with making his coffee but mistakes the milk labelled L.F. in the office fridge as “low fat” rather than belonging to her boss. That’s right, June has just poured her boss’ breast milk into her client’s coffee. He loved it, but Luna probably won’t which is why June calls her friend Isabel (Isabel Chan Yat-ning) who vows to mobilise their WhatsApp group to find June a new bottle of breast milk before 5pm so her boss will be none the wiser.

Once a tightly connected circle of friends, the usual middle-aged problems have led the “Bitches” to drift apart. Policewoman May (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) fell out with Isabel because she was convinced that she stole her boyfriend – her evidence being that his phone “inexplicably” connected to her wi-fi automatically despite his claims of never being in her house before. She is however big hearted enough not to let her animosity towards Isabel stop her helping out June whom, it seems, is the gang’s lynchpin and always there for everyone else in a crisis. Busy on the beat, May sends Isabel looking for some of the others all of whom have petty minor disagreements which make them reluctant to work together like rising ukulele star Minibus (Yanki Din) and her former partner Rosalin (Dada Chan Ching) who has fallen out with just about everyone thanks to writing a best selling book revealing her friends’ most embarrassing secrets.

Rosalin’s book became a hit not because of her writing talent (at least according to her friends) but because of the glamour shot she put on the cover which has earned her an army of adoring male fans which can be mobilised to help them get hold of some breast milk (though it’s unlikely any of them have babies of their own). Rosalin and Isabel chase dubious leads, while Minibus and gay couple Boris (Tan Han-jin) and Frank (Chui Tien-You) who seem to be having a few problems of their own try their luck on the black market.

Pang sends the gang all around Hong Kong (quite literally as he superimposes them on various skyscrapers so we can keep track of where they all are) on a wild goose chase trying to track down the elusive substance through various crazy capers while each of the friends gets a chance to readdress old grievances before finally coming back together again. A zany odyssey through the modern city, Missbehavior packs in the meta commentary with five year olds demanding payments to put towards their apartment funds while riffing strongly off local culture with references to aggressively rude waiters (in a scene stealing cameo from Lam Suet) and a bizarre fire fighting mascot which became an ironic internet hit.

Despite working within the relatively family friendly remit of the New Year comedy, Pang’s humour is (almost) as raucous and surreal as it ever was but he also makes time for more serious intent as in his sensitive inclusion of LGBT issues which eventually sees the gang set up a fake charity to collect milk for gay men raising babies and ends in a delightful set piece with everyone trying to evade shopping mall security by running around in rainbow capes like especially progressive superheroes. Packed out with cameos from Pang regulars, Missbehavior is an appropriately light and fluffy entry perfect for New Year that is above all else a tribute to the power of friendship and to the importance of putting aside petty disagreements and minor differences because a friend in need really is a friend indeed.


Missbehavior was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)