NYAFF 2018: Expect the Unexpected in THE EMPTY HANDS

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While the film makes its presence felt from the opening frames, it still takes a little time for a viewer to sync up to the particular, peculiar wavelength of The Empty Hands. The opening moments are something of a misdirect, as we follow the travails of Mute Dog (Stephen Au), using his martial arts skills to get the crap beaten out of him in an exhibition wrestling match. And so we prepare ourselves for a portrait of a down and out martial artist out to regain his self-respect.

But this ultimately turns out to be a feint, and an unanticipated fatality reveals Mute Dog to be a marginal figure in the story, supplanted by Mari Hirakawa (Stephy Tang), the daughter of Mute Dog’s deceased sensei. It’s her story we follow as she copes with the aftermath of her father’s death and the troubled history that she will be forced to confront.

Going in as blind as possible (as I often try to do with festival films such as these), it would be disingenuous to say that from the title I wasn’t expecting something a bit more action packed. And while there are indeed fight scenes (about which more in a bit), at heart The Empty Hands is a character study, and an artful, charming, occasionally quite moving one at that.

If the first surprise is the misdirect as to who our protagonist actually is, the second surprise comes both behind and in front of the camera, as judging from the credits (which come nearly twenty minutes into the film) this should be a total vanity project for Chapman To, who not only appears in the film, but also directed, co-produced, co-wrote it.

Instead, his role as recently released ex-con Chan Kent takes a self-effacing backseat to Mari’s story, despite him having what would appear to be the more interesting journey in the film.

Mari’s troubles are decidedly common, really: father issues and an unwise attachment to the married Calvin (Ryan Lau), who reveals his unworthiness in a fleeting postcoital moment where he smilingly refers to a smitten Mari as “little dummy”

But if Calvin is a sleaze unworthy of our heroine, it has to be said that our heroine herself proves at times to be unworthy of our sympathy as well. The deadpan countenance she uses as a shield against the outside world belies some of the harsh and spiteful attitudes that leak through in the form of her narrated inner thoughts, which show her to be kind of a bad friend to her gal pal Peggy (Dada Chan, deeply charming) and displaying some less-than-charitable thoughts towards her late father.

After no small amount of time getting into the head of Mari, we come to the main conflict of the film: Mari, who dreams of turning her fathers’ home/dojo into an apartment complex, finds that her father has bequeathed her only 49% of the property, with the controlling interest going to… Chan Kent.

To say more about where all this goes would be to spoil the lovely set of surprises that raise this film above the typical “woman finds herself” drama. The Empty Hands never quite does what you might expect it to, as To never fails to come at the story from odd, inventive angles.

The elliptical editing by Allen Leung that moves between past and present with sometimes off-putting casualness and Veronica Lee’s eccentric score do wonders to keep viewers off balance (in a good way), and the martial arts element (which becomes increasingly prominent as the film goes on) leads to some exquisitely choreographed fight scenes… scenes that actually put a lot of more action-based fight sequences to shame.

Part of that is the choreography by action coordinators Tommy Leung, a double duty pulling Stephen Au, and (quelle surprise) Chapman To. But part of that is also the investment we have in Mari and her journey. As her carefully constructed façade of control beings to slip and she’s forced to confront the truth about her own past, the film builds to a final fight where the stakes feel fairly low on a literal level, but stunningly high on a personal level, and as in the best fights, the outcome isn’t at all certain. And after that, the film has enough of a generosity of spirit to check in on pretty much every other character we’ve met over the course of the film, determined to give every last one of them a moment of quiet grace.

Oddly, the final minutes are so abrupt it feels like the screener may have had an error, but regardless, it feels absolutely perfect sounding a note of catharsis and hopeful ambiguity. The Empty Hands starts off as one thing, quickly becomes another, and keeps finding interesting ways to never quite become what you expect.

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