(Gordon) Lam Ka-Tung as Kwan Chiu in "Hand Rolled Cigarette" (2021)

Hand Rolled Cigarette 手捲煙 (2021) Review

Here’s a Hong Kong movie title that takes things both literally and figuratively, with the former depicting scenes of (Gordon) Lam Ka-Tung’s Kwan Chiu patiently filling a handful of loose-leaf tobacco onto a thin sheet of paper by hand.

He is then seen rolling the tobacco-filled paper into a slim, cigarette-like shape before licking all the way to seal the edge of the paper and subsequently light up the hand-rolled cigarette. It was one of the scenes prominently shown more than once in Chan Kin-Long’s Hand Rolled Cigarette <手捲煙>, a small-time actor appeared in movies like The Midnight After <那夜凌晨,我坐上了旺角開往大埔的紅Van> (2014) and My Prince Edward <金都> (2019) marking his feature-length directorial debut.

The figurative side of the title represents the process and the time that is spent building a bond, which in this case, is the unlikely friendship between Kwan Chiu and Mani (Bipin Karma). We first met Kwan Chiu in a black-and-white prologue during the pre-handover period, where he serves as one of the soldiers from the British-era Hong Kong Military Service Corps. He and his fellow squad members — among them include Chin Siu-Ho’s Wah, Tony Ho’s Tofu and Aaron Chow’s Winston — have to deal with uncertainty by the time the 1997 handover of Hong Kong takes place.

Fast-forward to the present day (2019, to be exact), Kwan Chiu is now working as a middleman, where he set up a deal between his local triad leader Boss Tai (Ben Yuen) and a Taiwanese smuggler, Pickle (To Yin-Gor) for smuggling turtles. Kwan Chiu relies on the commission to make a living and also pay off a huge debt after he lost a lot of money from the massive stock market downfall during the financial crisis.

A scene from "Hand Rolled Cigarette" (2021)
A scene from “Hand Rolled Cigarette” (2021)

Things get complicated when a South Asian immigrant named Mani seeks refuge in Kwan Chiu’s Chungking Mansions flat. Apparently, he has a backpack full of stolen cocaine belonging to Boss Tai and the gang led by Boss Tai’s right-hand man, Chook (Michael Ning) is looking for him. Kwan Chiu ends up letting Mani lay low in his place under the condition of paying him a significant amount of money. They do not get along at first but as the movie goes on, both of them become unlikely friends.

Hand Rolled Cigarette <手捲煙> may have been a crime drama but the movie is more about the friendship between Kwan Chiu and Mani. And surprisingly, the latter is ironically the weakest part of this movie. Chan Kin-Long, who also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Ling Wai-Chun (One Second Champion <一秒拳王>, Raging Fire <怒火>), lacking both strong conflicts and connection between the two characters. For instance, there’s a hint of racism shown earlier in the movie, particularly how Kwan Chiu behaves towards a South Asian immigrant (or “brownie”). But the story barely delves deeper into this issue and Chan Kin-Long ends up depicting it as superficial as possible.

It doesn’t really help when newcomer Bipin Karma’s overall performance is disappointingly stiff, leaving Lam Ka-Tung to shoulder most of the acting burden. Here, he does what he can with the material and still manages to pull off a typically good performance (he seems to have a banner year appearing in Hong Kong indie movies after Soi Cheang’s Limbo <智齒>). The way he subtly portrays a world-weary and guilt-ridden character, with the latter involving him causing his ex-comrade, Winston died of suicide after losing a fortune over a stock market crash does help a lot to overcome most of the story’s shortcomings.

The movie also benefits from a solid supporting cast, namely Ben Yuen and Michael Ning’s respective slimy turns as Boss Tai and Chook. Tai Bo, in the meantime, made quite an impression in a cameo appearance as Pickle’s associate. And whereas Chan Kin-Long prefers to gloss things over with surface-level storytelling, he is at least excels in the technical department.

With the help of Rick Lau’s atmospheric cinematography and Mike Orange’s spot-on score, Hand Rolled Cigarette <手捲煙> has that distinct neo-noir feel and of course, aesthetically speaking. Chan also proves to be quite a visual stylist during some of the violent moments, notably the final third act impressively shot in a single-take fight scene between Kwan Chiu and Tai’s men. The fight itself isn’t a stylised type but rather messy and brutal and the scene is among the best set-pieces I’ve ever seen this year.

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