Wednesday, July 04, 2018

NYAFF ’18: The Empty Hands

Typically, practicing karate will get your butt kicked in a Hong Kong movie. That is because it is Japanese. Japanese-Hong Konger Mari Hirakawa is keenly aware of that fact. Hong Kong has been her only home, yet she remains highly insecure about her otherness. It is one reason why she rebelled against the karate her sensei father forced her to study, but miscommunication and family dysfunction were even greater factors. After his passing, Hirakawa finally confronts his legacy in Chapman To’s The Empty Hands (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Since two-thirds of their Hong Kong flat were devoted to her father’s dojo, Hirakawa has always been forced to live with karate. HK real estate being what it is, she continued to live there as an adult, despite her resentment of her father. Things got particularly frosty when he made it clear he did not approve of her relationship with a married DJ. Then he died. It was not Hirakawa who found her father, but his loyal student and junior instructor, Mute Dog (so-called, because he is mute).

Hirakawa does indeed inherit the flat, but she does not have free and clear possession of the title. Much to her surprise, the sensei left a 51% share to his former protégé Chan Kent, an ex-con recently released from jail. When he takes over the dojo, the neighborhood kids start flocking back. However, he offers her a deal. If she can make it through three rounds of a local tournament without quitting or getting knocked out, he will sign his stake in the flat over to her.

Unlike Unbeatable, Empty Hands is sort of an anti-Rocky movie the subverts all the big match clichés. Even in The Karate Kid, there were bright lights and large crowds of spectators for the climatic fight scenes, but Hirakawa’s tournament takes place in what looks like a converted office building, with only her bestie Peggy and a bored old lady for an audience.

Previously known for rom-coms, Stephy Tang pulled a Matthew McConaughey with Empty Hands, winning awards and redefining herself as a thesp (she is also receiving the NYAFF’s Screen International Rising Star Asia Award this year). It is an honest and brittle performance that completely disregards any concern for cuteness or likability. Frankly, it is often frustrating to watch her self-destructive, self-pitying behavior, but she Tang gives it an element of existential defiance that is quite striking.

Even though Chapman To’s big breakout came in the Infernal Affairs films, he has mostly been doing light comedy in recent years, so it is refreshing to see him play it straight and understated as Chan Kent. Once again, Dada Chan brings a touching sweetness to Peggy, who would be a real throwaway character if she were played by anyone else. However, the real unsung hero is journeyman character actor Stephen Au, who is quite memorable as Mute Dog, in ways both gritty and poignant.

Someone ought to program The Empty Hands with Vimal Vaz’s HK-set Jade Dragon, because they both explore martial arts as a means of empowerment. The tow films also incorporate themes of responsibility and inheritance. To’s feature is even less genre-driven and possibly too ambiguous for many of his fans, but the star of Vulgaria definitely announces himself as a director of surprising sensitivity. Recommended for mature martial arts enthusiasts, The Empty Hands screens Friday evening (7/6) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.