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)

Love Off the Cuff (春嬌救志明, Pang Ho-cheung, 2017)

love off the cuff posterJimmy and Cherie, against all the odds, are still together and in a happy longterm relationship in the third addition to Pang Ho-cheung’s series of charming romantic comedies, Love off the Cuff (春嬌救志明). Following the dramatic declaration at the end of Love in the Buff, the pair have continued to grow into each other embracing each of their respective faults but after all this time Jimmy and Cherie have to make another decision – stay together forever or call it quits for good.

The major drama this time around occurs with the looming spectre of parenthood as Cherie’s long absent father and Jimmy’s “godmother” suddenly arrive to place undue strain on the couple’s relationship. These unexpected twin arrivals do their best to push Cherie’s buttons as she’s forced to re-examine her father’s part in her life (or lack of it) and how he may or may not be reflected in her choice of Jimmy, whilst Jimmy’s Canadian “godmother” makes a request of him in that he be the father of her child. Jimmy, a self confessed child himself, does not want anything to with this request but is too cowardly to hurt the feelings of a childhood friend and is hoping Cherie will do it for him. Cherie is wise to his game and doesn’t want to be trotted out as his old battle axe of a spouse but at 40 years of age children is one of the things she needs to make a decision on, another being whether she wants them with Jimmy.

Cherie’s father was an unhappy womaniser who eventually abandoned the family and has had little to do with any of them ever since. In his sudden return he brings great news! He’s getting married, to a woman much younger than Cherie. Building on the extreme insecurities and trust issues Cherie has displayed throughout the series, her faith in Jimmy crumbles especially after she intercepts some interestingly worded (yet totally innocent) text messages on his phone which turn out to relate to an unfortunate incident with their dog. Jimmy’s reliability continues to be one of his weaker elements as the behaviour he sees as pragmatic often strikes Cherie as self-centered or insensitive. Things come to a head during a disastrous getaway to Taipei in which the couple are caught in an earthquake. Cherie freezes and cowers by the door while Jimmy ties to guide her to safety but his efforts leave her feeling as if he will never value anything more than he does himself.

Moving away from the gentle whimsy of Love in a Puff, Cuff veers towards the surreal as the pair end up in ever stranger, yet familiar, adventures including a UFO spotting session which goes horribly wrong landing them with community service and accidental internet fame. A real life alien encounter becomes the catalyst for the couple’s eventual romantic destiny as does another of Jimmy’s grand gestures enlisting the efforts of Cherie’s father to help him win back his true love. Cherie’s troupe of loyal girlfriends even indulge in some top quality song and dance moves in an effort to cheer her up when it’s looking like she’s hit rock bottom though, improbably enough, it’s Yatterman who eventually saves the day.

Supporting cast is less disparate this time around relying heavily on Cherie’s dad and Jimmy’s godmother but Cherie’s friends get their fare share of screentime even if Jimmy’s seem to fade into the background. Cherie never seems to notice but one of her friends is in love with her and is not invested in her relationship with Jimmy, constantly trying to get her to come away on vacation to a nostalgic childhood destination, but most of the girls seem to be in the dump camp anyhow loyally making sure Cherie thinks as little about Jimmy as is possible lest she eventually go back to him.

Trolling the audience once again with the lengthiest of his horror movie openings (so long you might wonder if you’ve wandered into the wrong screen), Pang begins as he means to go on, mixing whimsical everyday moments of hilarity with surreal set pieces. It’s clear both Jimmy and Cherie have grown throughout the series – no longer does Jimmy skip out on family dinners with Cherie’s mother and brother but patiently helps his (future?) mother-in-law figure out her smartphone as well as becoming something like her errant father’s wingman. Things wrap up in the predictable fashion but it does leave us primed for the inevitable sequel – Love up the Duff? Could be, it’s the next logical step after all.


Love off the Cuff was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

Love in the Buff (春嬌與志明, Pang Ho-cheung, 2012)

love in the buff poster2010’s Love in a Puff was a delightfully low-key, slow burn romance in which two lonely smokers found each other over a back ally rubbish drum and a series of aimless text-based and ambulatory conversations. Jimmy and Cherie were both so diffident, fearful, and emotionally restrained that their grand love affair ended on a positive if ambiguous note, promising only to continue in forward motion. Where is there to go in a sequel? The same place again, apparently. Or, more precisely, Beijing.

So, Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and Cherie (Miriam Yeung) have found true love, moved in together and are very happy. Except, Jimmy is still Jimmy and Cherie is still Cherie and so there are problems. Things come to a head when Jimmy forgets a dinner arrangement with Cherie’s family, invites her to a beach party that turns out to be a work engagement, and then unwisely tries to win an argument by “reminding” her who plays the bills. Unsurprisingly, when Jimmy returns home Cherie has gone back to her mother’s. Jimmy takes a job in Beijing and starts dating an air hostess only for Cherie to also get an unexpected transfer to the mainland capital.

More or less following the pattern of the first film but with the roles of the protagonists reversed, Jimmy and Cherie find themselves falling back into the same old routine as they’re marooned in an unfamiliar city. Jimmy, still immature and self-centred, may have started an accidental relationship with a stewardess his friend intended to molest on an aeroplane, but it’s essentially superficial (at least from his side) and once again he finds himself texting Cherie whilst bored with his girlfriend’s elegant friend set. Cherie, not over Jimmy (much as she’d like to be) and perhaps regretting her over hasty grand gesture, begins a tentative relationship with a sensitive millionaire, Sam (Xu Zheng), whose only defects seem to be an old-fashioned idea of chivalry and the fact that he is extremely bald.

Despite Sam’s obvious goodness, Cherie can’t let Jimmy go and is ultimately disappointed to find that some of his childish strangeness has rubbed off on her – in fact, the very qualities which Sam finds attractive are ones she associates with Jimmy. Back to sneaking around, bickering, and exchanging cryptic text messages the pair are left to wonder if anything has really changed. The problems are exactly the same – neither one is willing to trust the other enough to make a real go of things. Cherie, still a little over sensitive about the (very small) age difference between herself and Jimmy as well as her ticking clock, resents being made to feel like the old ball and chain when Jimmy plays the coward in lying to her to go out drinking with friends. Jimmy still fears confrontation too much talk to Cherie in a straightforward way and so they’re locked in continuing cycles of passive aggressive drama.

Once again Jimmy and Cherie are the main draw though their friends take on a slightly larger role. Eunuch (Roy Szeto) remains Jimmy’s worst enabler as he urges him to make a series of bad decisions in making a life in the mainland capital, though there is a potential happy ending for Cherie’s “plain” friend Brenda (June Lam) whose lack of looks was the butt of such mean-spirited humour in the first film. Transposing the action to Beijing Pang takes another look at modern love with its marriage markets full of old women sitting in parks with signs selling the virtues of their sons not to mention the terrible blind dates but even if the actions of the central couple lean towards the sordid as they re-engage in accidental adultery, the romance is always gentle, innocent, and sincere. Jimmy and Cherie bonded in a puff, but now they have to learn to love each other “in the buff”, warts and all or call it quits.

Pang wisely drops the documentary conceit though maintains the laid-back aesthetic and whimsical music as the ballad of Jimmy and Cherie continues. The various cameo appearances threaten to derail the low-key style of the drama but once again Pang manages to capture something youthful, fresh, and heartfelt even if not moving very much beyond the original.


Original trailer (Cantonese with traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

Love in a Puff (志明與春嬌, Pang Ho-cheung, 2010)

love in a puffSmokers. Is there a more maligned, ostracised group in the modern world? Considering the rapid pace at which their “harmless” pastime has become unacceptable, you can understand why they might feel particularly put out – literally, as they find themselves taking refuge in designated smoking areas or perhaps back allies where it seems no one’s looking. For all the nostalgia about how easy it was to strike up a friendship with a stranger just by asking for a light, it is also important to remember that smoking is not so “harmless” after all and there are reasons why smokers are asked to keep their activities amongst those who’ve also decided to ignore the warnings. The Smoking Ordinance, oddly enough, may have accidentally boosted the social potential of a smoke as those eager for a puff are given additional reasons to spend time together in an enclosed space, building a sense of community through nicotine addiction.

Pang Ho-cheung’s landmark romantic comedy Love in a Puff (志明與春嬌) takes this idea to its natural conclusion as recently dumped ad exec Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and trapped in a going nowhere relationship cosmetics girl Cherie (Miriam Yeung) begin to bond over a cigarette or two taken in a back ally near Jimmy’s office. Actually, Cherie doesn’t event work here, she’s wandered over and found a collection of kindred spirits whilst trying to avoid being spotted by her boss who thinks smoking is bad for your skin (not great when you’re supposed to be a walking advert for the makeup you’re pushing). Whilst the other guys and girls gossip about Jimmy’s great failed romance – his girlfriend cheated on him with and then left him for a Frenchman who has a better job in the company, Cherie listens patiently even though she’s clearly outside of this tight social circle. For Jimmy, this might be just what he needs – a breath of fresh (well, differently perfumed) air that has almost nothing to do with his current circle of work based friends.

Nothing in particular happens but the pair grow closer as they both attempt to escape the less satisfying elements of their lives. Relying on text messages delivered in a mix of text speak English and Chinese, Jimmy and Cherie message each other when they get bored – he eating hot pot with colleagues, she trapped at a fancy dress karaoke party, getting together to waste time but each unwilling to consider what any of this means. Eventually Cherie decides to make a real decision, but predictably enough, Jimmy freaks out and jumps on the brakes only to realise his hasty reaction might have been mistaken.

The tone is light and playful as Pang trolls the audience by beginning as a horror movie complete with dripping blood credits and scary music. The sequence turns out to be just one of the silly stories they gang entertain each other with during their cigarette breaks – in fact this one is a staple of Indian pizza delivery boy Bitta who tells it every time a new girl shows up. The grisly opening sequence even makes a fun return as Jimmy uses it to prank Cherie bringing them closer together whilst also highlighting his boyish, irreverent character. These same qualities which help Jimmy get through to Cherie may also be among the reasons his previous girlfriend ended the relationship, becoming bored with his familiar antics such as his strange love of buying ice-cream in a convenience store solely for the dry ice which likes to put in the toilet to enjoy the incongruous smoke effects.

Laid-back in style, Pang allows the back and forth between the leads to take centre stage whilst peppering the edges with a collection of background details about their friends and social lives. Cutting to a series of direct to camera documentary-style interviews, Pang adds a layer of commentary about modern love and relationships which extends right into the end credits with a hopeful man’s strange story about a girlfriend’s dog, all of which has the ring of authenticity even if occasionally mean-spirited as in its mocking of a plain girl stood up by an online date deceived by her overly flattering profile picture.

Love comes creeping and Jimmy and Cherie dance around each other, unable to speak plainly but occasionally moving forward through grand gestures. Each assuring the other they’re “in no hurry”, the great gateway to future happiness appears not with the traditional declaration of love but the “simple and straightforward” “I miss you”. Surprisingly cute and innocent for a Cat III comedy, Love in a Puff is an inconsequential tale of love blossoming in smokey city backstreets between a girl who’s tired of waiting and a guy who doesn’t know where he’s going but together they might just be able to figure it all out.


Love in a Puff was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Kung Fu Killer (一個人的武林, AKA Kung Fu Jungle, Teddy Chan, 2014)

kung fu killerKung fu movies –  they don’t make ‘em like they used to, except when they do. Kung Fu Killer (一個人的武林, AKA Kung Fu Jungle) is equal parts homage and farewell as its ageing star, Donnie Yen, prepares to graduate to the role of master rather than rebellious pupil. What it also is, is a battle for the soul of kung fu. Just how “martial” should a martial art be? Is it, as our antagonist tells us, worthless with no death involved or will our hero prove the spiritual and mental benefits which come with its rigorous training and inner centring transcend its original purpose? Of course most of this is just posturing in the background of a lovingly old fashioned fight fest complete with a non-sensical plot structure motivated by increasingly elaborate set pieces.

Yen plays Hahou Mo, a martial arts master and instructor to the HK police who hands himself in one day covered in blood and confesses to having killed someone. Three years later Hahou is a man of peace, paying for the accidental death of an opponent by patiently waiting out his prison time. However, when he sees a news report about a serial killer with martial arts ability targeting fellow martial artists he goes on a violent rampage trying to get the attention of the police. If they’re going to solve this crime, they’re going to need someone who knows the martial arts world intimately and Hahou spies an opportunity to earn his freedom through helping someone not so unlike himself realise the error of their ways.

In keeping with the genre, its not so much of a whodunnit as a whydunnit and so the crazed murderer is unmasked fairly quickly. Fung Yusau (Wang Baoqiang) is determined to be number one in each and every discipline, taking on the accepted masters and besting them every time, even going to far as to leave a sarcastic trophy on every body. Hahou once shared his ambition, his reckless need to prove his skill is the reason his life has gone the way it has after all, but the two men share fundamentally different beliefs about the nature of their art. Fung Yusau believes martial arts exist for the reason of killing people – fights in which both challengers live are, to him, pointless and incomplete.

Even if Hahou once harboured the same desire to prove his skills superior to all others, his was a more internal quest. For him, at least now, kung fu is a sacred art of self improvement which can be used for self defence but is essentially about learning to live a harmonious life. Having learned from his own misfortune, he knows the folly of being no. 1 – in that it’s an essentially lonely and insecure place to be. Martial arts should be used to kick down walls and build bridges, his desire is to move forward in togetherness teaching people how to be happy rather than working against each other in an unnecessary and artificial kind of competition.

The police need Hahou’s help because the martial arts world is so essentially alien to them. Despite a shared culture, this insular universe is something which they know nothing about and is so dependent on interpersonal knowledge that no degree of wikipediaing is likely to help them understand it. Only by learning from those with direct knowledge and able to guide them through the particular thought processes of the killer will they stand any chance of being able to catch him. However, the strangely alternative nature of the martial arts universe also makes trusting Hahou and the veracity of his information a big ask for hardheaded cops.

Yen wisely cedes most of the action to Wang Baoqiang other than in the early prison riot sequence and final showdown. The fight scenes are innovatively choreographed and always exciting, except perhaps for going overboard with CGI especially during the motorway set finale during which the additional speeding cars become an unwelcome reminder of just how much less is at stake than during the heady Hong Kong heyday of death defying stunts. Still, the relative quality of the action goes a long way to covering for the otherwise under developed story elements.

A nice fusion of the classic and the modern, Kung Fu Killer wears its love on its sleeve with a final credits sequence celebrating the various Hong Kong greats who’ve all contributed to the film in some way even if in more of a spiritual capacity. Necessarily an exercise in genre, Kung Fu Killer makes no claims to breaking new ground or doing anything particularly interesting, but does provide ample scope for a celebration of Hong Kong action cinema as well as the handing of the baton from Yen to Wang as each showcases their respective martial arts prowess.


Original trailer (English Subtitles)