“The Empty Hands” is a martial arts themed drama that proves that there is much more to karate than just seeing people get thrown around in the dojo.

The Empty Hands screened at Osaka Asian Film Festival, that will be on March 9th to 18th. 

The film tells the story of Mari Hirakawa, a half-Japanese, half-Chinese young woman living in a karate dojo where her father still teaches. Moreover, her life is in a mess, as she is a real slacker with a dead end job. As a child, she was forced to practice karate by her father, but after losing a competition, she gave up practicing altogether. To make things worse, she also has a relationship with a married man who still lives with his wife.

One day, her father dies, leaving her with the dojo. She sees this as an opportunity to subdivide it into small apartments so she can rent them out and become a landlady. However, she soon discovers that she actually owns only 49%, and a disgraced ex-student, Chan Keung inherits the remaining 51%. After getting out of prison, Chan Keung moves in and starts to teach karate, which brings more conflict into her messy life.

However, Chan Keung sees redemption in her and is willing to give up his share if she participates and wins a karate competition. Accordingly, she accepts the challenge, starts her training to prepare for the big battle, hoping to win back the dojo.

Stephy Tang, a Cantopop singer best known for her goofy comedies in the past, plays the part of Mari Hirakawa. This movie is a showcase for her in a more serious role and she actually went through months of karate training. All this hard work pays off as she’s equally convincing in all the karate action scenes and the serious dramatic sequences.

Japanese veteran Yasuaki Kurata plays Mari’s father, the dojo owner. His story is mainly told from flashbacks and although we don’t get to see him fight, the scene in which he practices karate outdoor is beautifully shot in black and white. Overall, his presence here is that of calmness and discipline, but with some sadness.

Stephen Au, who plays the mute karate instructor, is actually a full combat champion and together with Chapman they help choreographing the fights in this movie. He also trained Stephy Tang for her role here as the karate daughter who makes a comeback. His scenes are touching throughout the movie.

Chapman To , a Hong Kong actor who’s also better known as a comedian, tries his hands on directing again here. He also co-wrote, produced and starred in this beautifully shot movie. To, who actually practices karate and has a black belt, directs with passion and one can feel his love for karate.  We even get to see him flex some muscles against some gangsters in a touching scene where he tries to protect a young girl. The fights are shot in a very calm and elegant way and a total contrast to most Asian martial arts movies.

The use of both classical music and traditional Japanese music by director To works well here. The training montage scenes of Stephy running on the almost empty streets of some local Hong Kong locations are very well shot. Overall, “The Empty Hands” is not a full blown martial arts action movie compared to most Hong Kong kung fu movies, it has quite a slow pace in which some viewers might even label as art house. None the less, it’s very refreshing to see karate implemented in a Hong Kong movie.

With this movie, both Chapman To and Stephy Tang show the viewers that they switch from comedy to serious mood without much effort. It’s a pity that the film will probably not be able to reach most mainstream movie crowds.