Hand Rolled Cigarettes (2020)
Director (and co-writer): Kin Long Chan
Cast: Ka Tung Lam, Bipin Karma, Michael Ning, Ben Yuen, Tai Bo, Siu-Ho Chin, Tony Ho, Pak-Hong Chu, Aaron Chow, Bitto Singh Hartihan, Yin-Gor To
Hand-Rolled Cigarette is a 2020 Hong Kong drama filmed entirely during the pandemic and tells the story of a retired British-Chinese soldier Kwan Chiu and an East Indian local Mani that gets caught up in misfortunes with the same triad society, Boss Tai. Both caught in their own difficulties, the story is about those forgotten and abandoned from the Hong Kong society on both a historical level during the 1997 Handover but also the modern day where they need to find their own means to survive. Kwan Chiu (Ka Tung Lam) resorting to being a middleman between triad societies and striking side deals to skim some more money while Mani (Bipin Karma) helping his cousin Kapil (Bitto Singh Hartihan) out dealing drugs to help support his little brother.
This directorial feature debut for Kin Long Chan is a fascinating and meaningful film experience. He dives into the backdrop using a slice of history in Hong Kong for army veterans who have contributed a lot to the country between the handover but was essentially forgotten with no passports being stuck neither here or there. While diving into strong messages of racism present in the society in the current day of 2019, contrasting the past with the present with black and white palette and color respectively. He also utilizes a lot of far shots pulling the camera and audience to a third person perspective and ending with a final brawl that features an impressive long shot watching the fight move from one room to the next using the doorways and windows to add additional depth.
Triad society stories and crime thrillers are very common especially in Hong Kong cinema and yet, Hand Rolled Cigarette takes a different angle, injecting it with themes that are not as frequently discussed like racism exists everywhere but rarely discussed in Asian films. Much like how it uses certain locations in Hong Kong which are more known but with a different perspective like Chungking Mansions, which is a fantastic choice considering the low budget businesses and the dense population that inhabits its building. The set locations aren’t too many but they do make the most out of these locations whether its Kwan Chiu’s apartment where Mani is allowed to hideout or Boss Tai’s headquarters where all the brutal and violent interrogations take place in search for where his stolen drugs have gone. Its easily comparable to Johnnie To’s Election which also featured a lot of violence, if anything this one takes it a step further in many cases usually leaving the brutality to the audience’s imagination leaving things going on behind doors or cut away from the set up of certain situations.
As much as its a thriller, the story is focused on these two people who essentially are trying to just get through life and has no choice but to do what they are doing. Kwan Chiu dealing with being left to their own devices during the 1997 Handover but also a mysterious fallout with his army buddies but having to handle these dangerous dealings between the triad societies while smoking his hand rolled cigarettes. Much like Mani, who crashes into his life to hideout which he offers for compensation but ends up being something of an anchor for this young man who really just wants his brother to have a better life and a future instead of the life he has to face. Ka Tung Lam delivers a fine performance here as its much more than just a crime thriller but adds some depth to his character which doesn’t exactly say a lot but as the little things get exposed, Kwan Chiu is such a righteous and loyal man. However, Bipin Karma’s debut as Mani is also outstanding as he fits well into the role capturing the character really well, creating a sort of contrast with the character of Kwan Chiu. Mani has this innocence and panic that makes him feel very realistic like a lost boy caught up in something much more than he can handle. The friendship between these two characters are absolutely the highlight for Hand Rolled Cigarette.
Overall, Hand Rolled Cigarette is a fantastic debut. Whether talking about the cinematography, the storytelling and the character development, there is a lot to love. The story packs together some Hong Kong history but also talks about the topics that aren’t frequently discussed in Hong Kong films. It also brings in another community and nationality which to be honest does form a part of the Hong Kong population. It balances the drama and crime thriller elements incredibly well and doesn’t shy away from going to the extremities in violence. It also brings a positive themes of friendship, loyalty and comradery. With that said, I’m definitely looking forward to see what Kin Long Chan’s does next.