A Candle to Hong Kong Crime Cinema
In the same way that Just 1 Day is a love letter to Hong Kong, Hand Rolled Cigarette is a candle to the HK fight club. Using landmarks like Chungking Mansions recognizable by Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express and glimmers of classics by Director Johnnie To, there’s a salute to the genre.
As part of the London East Asia Film Festival, Director Chan Kin-Long kindly made himself available at 3am HK time to chat to us. With his gravelly been-up-all-night-smoking-rollies voice, he speaks passionately about wanting to use his film to talk about those who don’t fit the mold.
Hong Kong is teeming with people with an identity crisis, he notes – are we Chinese? British? Hong Kongese? Additionally, he purposefully tucks his characters in where rich and poor are sidled up next to each other. Chungking, with a reputation for crime, drugs and a mix of international residents, is nestled into the most expensive part of town.
Shot during lockdown, Covid notably made it easier to get access to venues like Chungking Mansions. But just imagine the challenge of rolling tape in all those tight spaces. He notes that location shooting was the toughest bit.
Working with well-known actor Gordon Lam and completely unknown first-timer Bipin Karma, he invited Lam, who accepted the role immediately, into the planning early on. Having the pair improvise quite a bit to get the right feel, Chan creates a buddy flick in the midst of a neo-noir crime drama.
The narrative centres on a Chinese ex-British soldier (Lam), abandoned when his job is done and moving from leading – and relying on – a tight-knit team to fending for himself in a world where he doesn’t seem to fit. His counterpart is a young South Asian guy (Karma) whose skin colour means he can’t even pretend to conform, no matter how fluent.
Both outsiders are stuck doing dirty deeds for a cast of characters to survive, making risky moves without a better option. Caution turns to brotherhood as they reluctantly link arms against a common enemy.
Known as an actor in the Hong Kong film industry, Director Chan appears in The Midnight After and No. 1 Chung Ying Street among others. This is his first writer/director credit and the beginning of what he hopes is a long career crossing writing, directing and acting, like Clint Eastwood or Takeshi Kitano.
When asked about the title, Chan shares that he and script writer Ryan Ling spent long periods working together, both dragging on hand-rolled. They think of it as an attitude toward life. An obvious nod toward Chan’s all-time favourite movie, Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong, it’s about living on the edge with the utter belief that you’ll not only survive, but thrive – because you can. No matter the circumstances. All in. Every time.
Released in cinemas in 2021, Hand Rolled Cigarette opened the 2020 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and has since been doing the rounds from winning Taiwan’s Golden Horse Award and Udine’s White Mulberry Award to appearing at a number of festivals including the New York Asian Film Festival.
Embracing the super-violent, toward the end of the film there’s an all-out throw down where fighting is choreographed across several rooms. The camera as voyeur follows from outside, reminiscent of that hallway scene in Oldboy and similar to a more playful version in the video for ‘Die Meets Hard’ by Japanese rock band, Ling Tosite Sigure. It calls on the masterworks of martial arts cinema through meticulous cinematography and editing.
Chan praises the work of Editor William Chang, crediting him with producing the noir texture. He shares that Chang works his magic by metaphorically tasting each clip. He adjusts the atmosphere into something that couldn’t be created through filming alone.
Before the chat ends, Chan also points out insights he gained through working with Fruit Chan early in his career. That as a director one must be single-minded, sacrificing everything to create what you believe is a good movie. With all the attention this film is getting, it seems like Chan has reached it, having his moment in the black light.
Director Chan told us he’s currently writing a Hong Kong TV series that will start shooting in February. If it’s something you’d like to read about, give us a shout. For information on more fantastic movies from across East Asia, see the LEAFF programme here. Click here to see more movies reviewed as part of this film festival.
Verdict - 8.5/10