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‘Hand Rolled Cigarette’ (review)

Hand Rolled Cigarette is the first important film from Hong Kong since the troubles there in 2020– delayed by COVID and political instability. It is currently enjoying one of the most low profile Netflix releases I’ve ever seen, the portrait for the film doesn’t even contain the film’s title.

So much the worse, because the film is an absolute knockout; the kind of hard boiled character piece that Hong Kong cinema has been exporting for decades.

Both an elegy for a cinematic tradition unlike any other, and a hope for the Chinese province to continue to produce important and thought provoking films, Hand Rolled Cigarette is one of the great surprises of this year’s streaming slate.

So many classics from Hong Kong are built around the friendship of bad men who find in one another a common humanity that the larger world denies them.

This thread in Cantonese cinema runs back to the Shaw Brothers wuxia classics of the 60’s right up to the work of Johnnie To and Andrew Lau. Hand Rolled Cigarette is the story of Kwan Chiu (the impeccable Gordon Lam), a former colonial army officer who has become estranged from his comrades and now works as a low level facilitator for Hong Kong and Taiwanese triads.

Shunned by his legitimate friends and treated like disrespected by his criminal fellows, his life changes when Mani (Bipin Karma, in a breakout role), a South Indian immigrant and low level drug courier hides out in his apartment after swiping a stash from the same Triads Chiu nominally works for.

What begins as a Chiu stonewalling out of sheer spite slowly morphs into a real friendship between two broken men whose dreams of a better life have long since turned sour.

We infer that Mani, who is shown to be so dependent on the low level dealers he runs for in the beginning, sees Chiu as a new and superior protector who must be obeyed, and Chiu sees in Mani some of the idealism and loyalty that once governed his actions but has long since been abandoned. As the Triads close in, the film begins a slow burn towards a powerful, violent, conclusion. This is classic Hong Kong gangster cinema played in a lower key.

Director Chan Kin-Long makes his debut here and his work is amazing.

The film is set in the legendary Chungking Mansions neighborhoods and recalls films as diverse as Wild Search and Chungking Express for visual inspiration. Hong Kong looks vibrant, chaotic, lived-in, and diverse. The last films to feel like they were depicting a contemporary Hong Kong in a vibrant way were the crime thrillers of Wilson Yip and Soi Cheang, and there they felt like either an electric wonderland or a grimy dystopia. It was nice to see gritty neorealism in Hong Kong cinema again. I especially appreciate the attention paid to immigrant communities within the city, a subject rarely broached in Hong Kong cinema for how prevalent immigrants have been throughout the last century of its existence.

This emphasis, which I’ve termed gritty neorealism above, is not just a function of the cinematography but filters down to story and theme.

These are not the “Heroic Bloodshed” gangsters of Woo or the laconic killers of Johnnie To, but desperate men who are at the end of a long fuse and must finally be pushed into violence. If Hong Kong 40 years ago was known for taking occidental gangster archetypes and supercharging them with a heroic sensibility, we’ve moved now into a vision where crime is the last refuge of the economically desperate. If before violence was the product of men of principle trying to exist in a world without any virtue, we’re now excavating the world that remains after they’ve been killed off, and our heroes are just trying to keep their heads down long enough to make a buck– compelled to violence when that is no longer a possibility.

Hand Rolled Cigarette marks what is hopefully a new generation of searing and dangerous filmmaking from one of cinema’s greatest traditions. If the province can continue to produce works of this quality then reports of the death of Cantonese film will be greatly exaggerated.

4 out of 5 stars.



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