Asian cinema: Hong Kong film
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Lam Ka-tung (left) and Bipin Karma in a scene from Hand Rolled Cigarette (category: IIB, Cantonese), directed by Chan Kin-long.

ReviewHand Rolled Cigarette movie review: Lam Ka-tung shines as a former British soldier in Hong Kong-set crime thriller

  • Director Chan Kin-long shoots himself in the foot with his decision to inject his socially aware drama with a dose of over-the-top gangland violence
  • It is nevertheless a technically accomplished film, with an extended fight sequence towards the end worth the ticket price alone

3/5 stars

Fruit Chan meets Takashi Miike for Hand Rolled Cigarette – or so it must have felt to actor-turned-debutant-filmmaker Chan Kin-long when he decided to inject his history-minded, socially aware drama with an awkward dose of over-the-top gangland violence.

The film was a nominee in seven categories at the 2020 Golden Horse Awards (including best picture), though its schizophrenic shifts in tone nevertheless reinforce the impression this is more style than substance.
Riding a hot streak of gruff leading roles that often see him lurk on the fringes of the law and society – beginning with 2016’s Trivisa, and looking set to continue with the upcoming Limbo – Lam Ka-tung plays Chiu, a former Chinese soldier for the British army who has lost his job, his best friends from that era, as well as the will to make a better living for himself since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

The film’s black-and-white prologue, showing Chiu and his squad back in 1996 when they were on the verge of disillusionment, shares the premise of Fruit Chan’s The Longest Summer (1998); indeed Tony Ho Wah-chiu, the leading man of that film, also shows up in Hand Rolled Cigarette as one of the veterans.

But it soon transpires that Chan Kin-long is not as interested in that legacy as it would initially appear.

Estranged from his army friends after tragedy struck during a stock market crash years ago, Chiu sees no way out of his heavy debts at the present – until a helpless South Asian young man, Mani (newcomer Bipin Karma), coincidentally bursts into his cluttered apartment in Chungking Mansions with a large bag of stolen drugs.

If that sounds far-fetched, wait till you realise the two also happen to share the same enemies in the criminal world.

Ben Yuen (left) and Michael Ning in a still from Hand Rolled Cigarette.

Chiu provides a hiding place for Mani, and the pair develop an unlikely bond; briefly, the film looks like it might rival Still Human (2019) for poignancy in its depiction of the city’s ethnic diversity. But then two cartoonish villains, played by Ben Yuen Fu-wah and Michael Ning, both dialling it up to 11, come around to dish out sadistic violence left and right – and you suspect someone has swapped the film reels as a prank.

Directed by Chan from a script he co-wrote with Ryan Ling Wai-chun, this is a technically accomplished film – a remarkable feat, considering its relatively low budget as a production under the government’s First Feature Film Initiative – that needlessly shoots itself in the foot by cramming two movies into one.

Yet Chan should be admired for his ambition; the stunt choreography of a stand-out, extended fight sequence towards the film’s end is worth the ticket price alone.

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