Director: Kin Long Chan
Notable Cast: Gordon Lam, Bipin Karma, Tai Bo, Ben Yuen,
Michael Ning, Chin Siu-Ho Aaron Chow Chi-Kwan, Tony Ho, To Yin-Gor, Bitto Singh
“To those who keep working hard for Hong Kong cinema,
passing the flame to future generations.”
These are some of the final words that scrawl across the end
credits of Hand Rolled Cigarette, the 2020 Hong Kong crime thriller
which has quietly earned a fistful of accolades prior to its most recent
screening at the New York Asian Film Festival. For a film so indebted to
recapturing some of the gritty artistic merit of late 80s and early 90s
Hong Kong capers, it’s a resounding punctuation to the film’s punchy third act.
However, it’s a fitting one that exists as a magnetic pole to guide the themes,
style, and choices being made throughout the film.
Considering the director, Kin Long Chan, is crafting his
debut with Hand Rolled Cigarette - it’s also a statement of intent,
shepherded by an obvious love for the heavyweights of the previously mentioned
‘golden era.’ The choices laid out on the table by Chan should not surprise,
really, particularly with his past cinematic history.
Chan is a relatively young actor in the area, but his
credits, which include Wild City, The Crossing, and Port of
Call - the latter being a somewhat intriguing pairing with Hand Rolled
Cigarette in its thematic ties about the aftermath of the Hong Kong
handover in the late 90s, speak for themselves. He has worked with some
substantial voices from the classic Hong Kong era like Fruit Chan and Ringo Lam
- may he rest in peace. The interactions have obviously rubbed off.
Chan delivers a film that is strangely surrealistic in its
realism. Swaths of neon colors, including sickly greens and blushing reds,
saturate so much of the night set pieces. Not in a bold Argento manner or in a
solely stylish choice like the John Wick films, but as a mood-setting
that gives the contrast of day to night a fantastical slant. A hand-off of
drugs and money is set to gorgeous orange haze, cut by the bright blue lights
of LED headlights in one moment and yet the daytime sequences are shot with
the utmost realism. Hand Rolled Cigarette never loses its sense of
grounding, even in the more intense moments - including a no-cut, brutal, and no
holds barred brawl at the end of the third act, and it’s brilliant in its leaps
between subtle directorial choices and pops of style.
Hand Rolled Cigarette follows the intersecting lives
of two haphazard low-level criminals. An ex-military man struggling to pay off
substantial debt finds himself hiding a drug dealer from the same crime lord he
is working with currently. The story is relatively simple and its reveals in
plot and narrative develop as character beats rather than twists or shifts to
shock its audience. This intentionality with its character development, where
the plot serves them versus the characters progressing the plot, is the key to
the film’s success.
Like many of the great crime flicks that Hand Rolled
Cigarette could be compared to, it’s the performances here that anchor the
film’s soul. The lead role, played by Gordon Lam, is a complex one, where good
intentions, bad circumstances, and a jaded outlook on life culminate in a
layered and fascinating performance. His intense apathy is balanced by the
naive and frantic energy brought by Bipin Karma as the young drug dealer trying
to find a place in the harsh realities of being a foreigner on the streets.
Their chemistry together, oftentimes punctuated by abrasive behavior, is
palpable in every scene. Director Chan smartly focuses down on this
relationship, forced together by violent and disparate acts of survival,
creating such a dynamic core that the rest of the film has no option but to
This intensity of focus on the characters does come with its
fair share of obstacles, mainly in the manner that Hand Rolled Cigarette
tends to weave in tons of socio-political commentary within its dialogue and
plot. Topics such as parenthood, loyalty to friends and family, survival,
racism, and the weight of poverty bound throughout the gritty realism of its
setting and time. The film rarely focuses on any one aspect, instead, it sets them up as either character development aspects or tone setting, which is an
option that can feel a tad underdeveloped. It’s not a full distraction or
misfire though, particularly in the choice to deliver these as integrated into
the plot and characters.
For fans of the classic crime pictures of the Hong Kong
golden era of the 80s and early 90s, Hand Rolled Cigarette is a stark
reminder of the hard-hitting and yet impressively nuanced artistic merit that
has mostly been overrun by Hollywood influenced spectacle. Director Kin Long
Chan crushes his debut, embedded with an instinctual sense of balance, visual
pizzazz, and gritty realism to craft a world for his impressive cast. It’s
fitting then that the film ends with those insightful words though. Chan is not
just channeling his influences but embracing them and bringing them to a new
audience - taking the flame that’s being passed to him.