The best part of the New York Asian Film Festival is the highlighting of smaller, quirkier movies apart from the big budget blockbusters. The Empty Hands is one of those smaller movies that often get overlooked. Co-written by Erica Li, one of the best screenwriters in Hong Kong, co-written and directed by comedian and actor Chapman To with a performance by Stephy Tang that turns her into a serious actress rather than the rom-com lightweight people have thought she was for over 10 years.
Half-Japanese Mari Hinekawa is a hot mess. She’s mooning over her married lover who takes her for granted, her life is going nowhere, and her estranged karate instructor father has just died. The best thing she can think of is to turn her father’s dojo into a bunch of rooms so she can live off the rent and keep on being a slacker. There’s only one snag: her father left half the dojo to Chan Keung, a student he expelled years ago for joining the Triad. Chan has just been released from a stint in prison after he quit the Triads and beat up his boss for trying to rape a teenage girl.
He immediately continues karate lessons at the dojo, which pisses off Mari, who had quit martial arts just to spite her father. Her unresolved resentment and daddy issues cause her to throw a tantrum over the dojo, which has come to represent everything she hates about her life. She’s so childish she even picks a fight with a bunch of 11-year-old students, only to get her ass kicked. This bears saying again: she gets beaten up by a bunch of children half her size.
Chan makes her a proposition: if she takes up karate training again and manages to keep standing in a proper martial arts tournament, he’ll sign his half of the dojo to her. If she loses or quits again, he’ll stay and keep teaching.
This isn’t really a martial arts movie so much as a low-key character study — a minimalist, nonlinear, elliptical arthouse indie rather than a big sweeping narrative.
Mari’s father, played by legendary Japanese actor Kurata Yasuaki, appears in flashbacks and almost as a ghost throughout the movie. Stephen Au plays Mute Dog, a the other instructor in the dojo whose life is also at a dead end with underpaid gigs as the punching bag in rigged novelty wrestling matches. Dada Chan plays Mari’s ditzy-but-sweet-natured best friend who has no problems working in a sleazy massage parlour, almost as a reminder that this is a Hong Kong movie.
Stephy Tang trained in karate for six months so that she could play a former child prodigy convincingly. Stephy Tang started out as a teen pop idol before moving onto fluffy romantic comedies, and this is the first time she’s played a lead role that’s flawed, contradictory, infuriating, and, well, kind of an asshole. There’s no big bad guy for the heroine to defeat, no world-threatening plot to overcome — just a portrait of a woman with unresolved issues about her life who learns to not quit anymore.
Chapman To (himself a black belt in karate), as Chan, plays Mari’s conscience and a proxy of Mari’s father, who seems to have reached out from beyond the grave by using Chan as his instrument to kick her ass and make her get on with her life. If this sounds like a “father knows best” story, when Mari finds herself again, it’s still on her terms, and she’s not apologizing for any of it. Her triumph is quiet. She might still be an asshole, but she’s starting to grow up.
The Empty Hands may have come and gone at the New York Asian Film Festival, but it can be watched on various Video On Demand platforms like YouTube.