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 Hartihan
“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 follow suit.
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.