Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jun 27, 2018 4:44 pm 
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A girl can't be herself

In his second outing as a director, in which he also costars, Hong Kong actor Chapman To (Du Wenze) takes on the amusing and original tale of a young woman called Mari (Stephy Tang, in what has been heralded as a career-best performance) and her struggle to break away from the strict lifestyle of her Japanese karate master father (Kurata Yasuaki) after he suddenly dies. Here is female empowerment, accompanied by many droll as well as serious ironies.

Mari has had to grow up in a not-so-huge Hong Kong apartment that was mostly a karate dojo. Set design is one of this movie's special delights, particularly of the apartment, with its austere, zen dojo and the little, cramped living space it allows, a mass of crushed-together clutter. Daddy forced Mari to participate fully in his karate world, training and competing intensely, which she never liked, despite a gift for it. She finally quit, and they became estranged, while she snuck away frequently to enjoy a love affair with a married man, a radio DJ named Calvin (Ryan Lau). Then, when her father dies, Mari rejoices at the prospect of closing the dojo, whose business has dwindled lately anyway. She will live a free life, subdividing the well-located apartment into tiny apartments and living idly as a Hong Kong slumlord.

But that is not to be. Cue to lawyer-reading-the-will scene. Her father, it transpires, has left 51% of the dojo to a former student Mari can't even remember, the - to her - mysterious Chan Kent (Chapman To) a man who turns out to have just been released from prison. And so, to Mari's distress, Chan Kent comes to take over the running of the dojo with Mute Dog (Stephen Au), her father's main teacher, whose gruff ways she had hoped to be rid of. To make matters worse, Mari's boyfriend, Calvin, has just broken up with her. Her only comfort is her longtime friendship with buxom and down-to-earth BFF Peggy (Dada Chan), who works in a massage parlor with bj finales.

The movie unfolds all these complex details efficiently and entertainingly in the first half hour, including flashbacks to Mari's force-fed karate childhood, love-scenes with boyfriend Calvin, combative cuddles with Peggy, and noble, solitary karate workouts by Mari's chilly but distinguished-looking Japanese father, accompanied by the occasional splash of baroque music. Later an elegant flashback shows how Kent was rejected by Mari's dad for using karate selfishly, then got his several years' jail time for assault using it as he would like, to protect a little girl against a sexual predator. It is at this point, on his release, that he and Mari meet.

Then, when she makes her objection to life with him running the dojo clear, Chan Kent has a proposition: if she will enter a karate contest and simply remain standing, whether she wins or loses, he will sign off his part of the property to her and she'll never see him again. She does this, encountering a small but muscular and rough opponent who smashes her bloody. Many flashbacks - neatly done - show how her father's teachings have fortified her, though, and in the end she triumphs. The fight, despite all the cross-cutting, is very convincingly staged, Stephy Tang's karate chops convincing throughout.

Director To delivers a final sequence that neatly contrasts with this busy action. He takes a step that's so artistically valuable and so rare: he lets the film stop to breathe, with Mari alone in the dojo, having an imaginary dialogue with her father. As the film ends, nothing is decided, and we are left to contemplate its themes of rebellion, responsibility, and self defeat.

THE EMPTY HANDS / 空手道 Hung sau dou ("Karate"), 87 mins, opened theatrically 2 November 2017 in Hong Kong, and in early Jan. 2018 in Taiwan; also was shown at Singapore May 2018. It was screened for this review as part of the New York Asian Film Festival, showing 6 Jul. 2018 at 8:15 p.m. Q&A with actress Stephy Tang, who will receive the Screen International Rising Star Award.

See Derek Elley's sino-savvy review on Sino-Cinema for further details, including the actual Chinese names of the actors, etc. Elizabeth Kerr wrote a review for Hollywood Reporter ("One of the strangest martial arts dramas ever made").


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