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)

Fat Buddies (胖子行动队, Bao Bei’er, 2018)

Fat Buddies posterChinese cinema hasn’t exactly had the best record when it comes to dealing with atypical heroes, but then no cinema really has. Gazing at the poster for Fat Buddies (胖子行动队, Pàngzi Xíngdòng Duì) – the debut directorial feature from actor Bao Beier who also stars, one can’t help but assume the next two hours will be one long joke at the protagonists’ expense, but to its credit Fat Buddies is not (entirely) the film it seems to be and, ironically enough, there is more going on beneath the surface than an excuse to have at a “permissible” target.

The hero, played by Bao Beier himself, is a very rotund security guard currently working in a hospital in Tokyo for reasons which will (mostly) be explained later. Though Hao is a cheerful and friendly man with a strong sense of justice, he is ostracised by the (strangely large number of) other guards and has no real friends save his extraordinarily beautiful Japanese wife. Hao’s life changes forever one day when another large Chinese man calling himself “J” arrives at the hospital and causes a ruckus by trying to escape without paying. J convinces Hao that he is an international super spy on a top secret mission and that he needs Hao’s help to get out of the hospital so he can save the world. Believing he is finally being given the chance to become the agent of justice he’s always dreamed of being, Hao is only too eager to oblige.

Strangely enough, the entire film takes place in Tokyo even though the heroes and antagonists are all Chinese. Even so, it never resorts to the comedic caricatures common in recent mainland cinema when depicting the Japanese with even the police characterised as dedicated and efficient if sometimes a little overzealous and misguided, though one does wonder if the setting was chosen solely for the sumo associations of the grand finale. There is however a degree of bite in Hao’s view of himself as a non-Japanese person living in Japan who is married to a Japanese citizen and speaks the language fluently but still remains an outsider both because of his unusual appearance and because of his nationality (with a mild implication from some that perhaps the two things are not entirely unrelated). In an early set piece, Hao and J find themselves trying to infiltrate an upscale party where they have unwittingly stolen the clothes of a pair of famous dancers and eventually end up improvising a strange routine to a bawdy song which is all about being a “foreigner” in Japan who “doesn’t understand Japanese but loves Sora Aoi” and then continues in a similarly lowbrow vein with a mix of Mandarin, international English, and intentionally broken Japanese.

Rather than a two hour fat joke – though there are a fair few of those in a recurrent motif of J getting stuck in things Pooh-style and losing his trousers in the process, the the major message is that the pair are fine as they are and apart from the aforementioned problem, their size is not a barrier to being able to do anything they want including taking on international spy missions. Despite his happy marriage, Hao still suffers from loneliness and low self-esteem due to a lifetime of being looked down and on belittled, unable to make friends because of prevalent social stigma towards those on the heavier side. The solution, however, is not a makeover or a crash diet but a gradual process towards Hao regaining his sense of self worth and realising he has plenty to offer the world despite what anyone else might say. Similarly J, who experienced rapid weight gain after a life threatening injury and also suffers from narcolepsy, proves that he is still able to do his job even if he benefits from having a partner around when he randomly falls asleep at inopportune moments.

Fat Buddies isn’t claiming to be high art and there is certainly enough of the low humour the title implies to keep those enticed by the poster happy enough, but there is also genuine heart in its odd couple buddy comedy as the two similarly under-appreciated big guys bond in their shared desire to reclaim their sense of dignity and refuse to be shamed or belittled just because of their size (even if they are otherwise quite bumbling and inefficient in their mission). Strangely uplifting, Fat Buddies is an extremely silly comedy starring two men in fat suits repeatedly bumping into things but like its heroes refuses to be bound by stereotypical conventions and manages to make heartwarming drama out of its admittedly ridiculous premise. 


Fat Buddies is currently on limited release in UK Cinemas.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Brink (狂獸, Jonathan Li, 2017)

the brink posterDesire makes beasts of us all. Longtime assistant director Jonathan Li makes his feature debut with a waterborne pulp noir which takes on more than a hint of gloomy sea shanty in its musings on sailors, their eternal brotherhoods, and ocean owned souls. The Brink (狂獸) mixes metaphysical drama with the more usual procedural tropes as a wounded, maverick cop chases his prey through hell and high water, refusing to acknowledge that his own “recklessness” is the single cause of the chaos he currently finds himself embroiled in.

The exhilarating opening sequence tracks around a ruined building before finding ruthless cop Sai Gau (Zhang Jin) engaged in a brutal fight with a suspect who later lands right on his police car after careering out of a top floor window. In addition to the death of the suspect, Sai Gau’s recklessness also causes the death of a fellow officer and sees him suspended from the police force after being charged with possible manslaughter. Six months later he’s absolved of guilt, released, and reinstated but clearly not forgiven by his colleagues and superiors who continue to regard him as a liability.

Hair dyed blond, Sai Gau sets about investigating a notorious gold smuggling operation operating under the cover of the local fishing trade. Meanwhile, smuggling underling Gui Cheng (Shawn Yue) has learned he’s about to be sidelined by his adopted father figure in favour of a feckless biological son and suspects his boss is about to have him offed. Gui Cheng preempts the situation by taking out the son’s guys and replacing them with his own before turning his would-be-assassin’s knife (or more accurately harpoon gun) back on him only for Sai Gau to arrive and ruin everything, unwittingly kicking off a series of unfortunate events for all concerned.

Li sets up Sai Gau and Gui Cheng as inverted mirrors of each other – hence Sai Gau’s ridiculous blond hair which sets him apart from the darkness of the long haired Gui Cheng. Where Sai Gau is all impulsive, instinctual action, Gui Cheng is calm and distance personified. Gui Cheng rarely speaks and when he does he’s concise and to the point, whereas Sai Gau, while not especially loquacious, is a classic wisecracker who speaks without thinking and is unafraid of the consequences of his words. Yet both men are also playing against themselves – Sai Gau has adopted the teenage daughter of the man he killed but refuses to allow himself to care for her, whereas the otherwise heartless Gui Cheng seems to have an intense yet platonic relationship with his female sidekick.

Twin betrayals set Sai Gau and Gui Cheng on an inevitable collision course leading towards a tussle over the gold which becomes more symbol than pure financial gain. Gui Cheng, once so calm and calculating, becomes fixated on harvesting what’s his, turning the buried treasure into his personal white whale while for Sai Gau it becomes the symbol of a long buried evil, a cursed charm designed to lure men to their doom by sending them into the centre of a storm it knows they cannot survive. Gui Cheng believes himself blessed by the goddess of the sea and that the gold is his for the taking, but it is ultimately the sea which claims him as he attempts to defy the elements to stake his claim on the cursed treasure which it has already swallowed. Sai Gau claims no particular spiritual affiliation but the gold, and its corrupting influence, reawakens his sense of morality as he becomes as convinced that the gold is evil as Gui Cheng is that it is his salvation.

The gold turns men into the “wild beasts” of the Chinese title though the English one seems to place them on the “brink” of losing themselves at any given time. Highly stylised, Li’s Hong Kong is one of neon lit darkness in which it is always raining and the air hangs heavy with despair and impossibility. The action scenes are impressively choreographed sequences of balletic beauty captured with Li’s gift for unusual composition and an urgent energy which acts as a harbinger for the coming storm. Pure pulp noir, The Brink has an almost Lynchian sense of lurking darkness creeping in from another, more mythical world the kind of which sailors sing about in their shanties and only talk about by candlelight.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Manhunt (追捕, John Woo, 2017)

Manhunt30 years ago John Woo was one of Hong Kong’s most bankable directors. The father of heroic bloodshed, Woo’s bullet ballet sent shockwaves through action cinema not only in his home country but around the world. Unsurprisingly Hollywood came calling and Woo was one of the first Asian directors to enjoy mainstream US success with ‘90s hits Broken Arrow and Face/Off before his overseas career began to stall and he eventually returned to Hong Kong directing period epics Red Cliff and The Crossing. Manhunt (追捕, Zhuībǔ) is intended as a kind return to source as Woo gets back into the groove of his beautifully choreographed ‘80s action hits but intentionally or otherwise he sails dangerously close to self parody with a mix of Big Pharma conspiracy and wrong man thriller.

Chinese corporate lawyer Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu) is a trusted employee of a Japanese pharmaceuticals company but is shortly to be transferred overseas, much to CEO Sakai’s (Jun Kunimura) displeasure – Du knows too much about the company’s less than transparent operations. Sakai sets up a honey trap to convince Du to stay but before it can spring Du is accosted by another woman, Mayumi (Qi Wei), who wants to talk to him about a difficult case three years previously in which an employee ended up committing suicide. After talking with Mayumi, Du goes home but the next thing he remembers is waking up in bed next to a dead woman. Du does the right thing and calls the cops, but the cops are working for Big Pharma and soon he finds himself on the run while maverick police chief Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) and two female assassins (Ha Ji-won & Angeles Woo) try to track him down.

Manhunt is inspired by the 1976 film starring Ken Takakura which was one of the first non-native movies to open in China following the Cultural Revolution. Woo apparently made the film as a kind of tribute to the actor after he passed away in 2014, but he takes his cues from the source novel by Juko Nishimura rather than the Takakura film and the 2017 Manhunt shares little in common with the 1976 version other than a general plot outline involving a man on the run and unethical practices in the pharmaceuticals trade. Du Qiu is not a stuffy, by the book, prosecutor but a compromised employee of a shady organisation who is oblivious to his own complicity in its extremely unpalatable way of doing business.

Despite this, Du Qiu is just as lucky as Takakura’s Morioka in that everyone he meets immediately wants to help him. Even sworn enemies with their hearts set on revenge eventually wind up joining team Du as they each descend on the pharmaceuticals research laboratory where the deadly secrets will be revealed. Woo returns to his heroic bloodshed roots in allowing dogged policeman Yamura and the increasingly confused Du to form an odd couple buddy duo which begins with spiky one liners and ends with becoming one as each places his uncuffed hand on the same pistol to take down a few bad guys through the power of togetherness.

Woo’s action credentials remain unchanged as he races from set piece to set piece from the opening surprise massacre to Du’s subway chase escape, jet ski race, and mansion showdown before getting anywhere near the endgame of the research lab. Perfectly choreographed, the sequences bear out Woo’s distinctive sense of humour while also poking fun at his back catalogue through a series of homages including an entire coop full of white doves just waiting for their chance to fly.

Set entirely in Japan, Manhunt shifts between Japanese and Mandarin though it has to be said that the film suffers from its reliance on English which is often poorly delivered and deliberately stylised to ape classic action movie one liners the like of which have been out of fashion for two decades. Woo neatly sends himself up with an opening discussion of “old movies” allowing one of the film’s two female assassins to develop an odd fascination with Du which leads to her eventual awakening from company brainwashing, but he also pays his dues with the theme music to Sato’s 1976 version playing over the first scene of mass bloodshed. Woo may have slipped into self parody with his deliberately over the top theatrics, but he has fun doing it and his gleeful self skewering proves extremely hard to resist.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (dialogue free, English captions)