Best known for his rib-tickling comedies, Hong Kong actor-director Chapman To caught everyone by surprise with his sophomore directorial effort, a martial arts drama titled The Empty Hands.

The English title for the art house karate flick is actually a literal translation of the Japanese martial art that also doubles as the movie’s Chinese title.

To chose to feature karate, due to his own interest in the subject matter. “I practised karate for six to seven years and gained a lot of insights. The time spent training is invaluable, as you learn how to overcome pain and suffering,” he said. “Even when we feel that life is miserable, martial arts instills discipline and teaches us to persevere. “Comedy and tragedy are essentially two sides of the same coin. If I slip on a banana skin and fall down, it’s funny for you, but sad for me.”

To made his directorial debut last year with the foodie comedy Let’s Eat, which he also wrote and starred in. For his second film, however, he has chosen to go the serious route. “This time, there is no comedy at all. I love acting in comedies; but being a director is a different matter altogether,” said To.

The 45-year-old filmmaker (birth name Edward Ng Cheuk-cheung), said it was more challenging this year as he additionally served as producer on top of being a screen-writer, director, and actor.

In The Empty Hands, To plays a disgraced karate instructor who has to revive his deceased master’s (Yasuaki Kurata) dojo by teaching the old man’s daughter (Stephy Tang) alongside her mute coach (Stephen Au). The young woman supposedly detests karate training but agrees to participate in a fight to regain control of her father’s dojo.

“Hong Kong is basically not a feasible place for filmmaking. It is too noisy and there are too many people. So, lots of elements are not within our control. But the most challenging has got to be the fighting sequences and action scenes,” said To.

Best known for her roles in romantic comedies, Tang had no martial arts background. So she had to undergo months of training under Au, 50, a bona fide full contact heavyweight karate champion.

Hong Kong Stephen Au Stephy Tang The Empty Hands karate martial arts

Karate exponent Mari Hirakawa (Stephy Tang) regains her form with professional training from Mute Dog (Stephen Au).

“Stephy wanted to perform her own action scenes, just like Jackie Chan does. Fortunately, she has a solid sports background and the flexibility required to make it work,” said To, praising the 34-year-old actress who used to represent Hong Kong in professional volleyball.

While having 71-year-old veteran Japanese actor Kurata in the movie was a plus point, it also gave To a lot of pressure. “He is very professional. Every time he completes a scene, he will ask me very politely how I find his portrayal. It feels really strange for me as a newbie director to work with such an outstanding veteran.”

Yasuaki Kurata The Empty Hands martials arts Hong Kong movie

Japanese veteran martial arts actor Yasuaki Kurata plays a karate instructor who bequeaths his dojo to his daughter Mari Hirakawa (Stephy Tang) and former student Chan Keung (Chapman To).

Kristal Tin, To’s actress wife of 12 years, was just as taken aback by his filmmaking skills.

“She said to me, ‘You have never studied filmmaking. You have never apprenticed as an assistant director. How do you even know how to make movies?’ ” recalled To. “Coming from my wife, that is, to me, a compliment from a loving spouse.”

Now that rave reviews are rolling in for his latest movie, the self-confessed foodie hopes to make a foodie travelogue in Malaysia in the future.

“I want to go travel and cook up all sorts of dishes in different places. And then introduce all these Malaysian foods to others. Especially Hong Kongers, most of whom have limited exposure to South-East Asian cuisine.”

The Empty Hands is now showing in cinemas nationwide. 

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