Despite the fact that Hand Rolled Cigarette (no hyphen) is the directorial debut of Chan Kin-long, it’s a film steeped in the golden age of Hong Kong crime cinema. It was produced by Lawrence Lau, also known as Lawrence Ah Mon, the director of late-‘80s/early-‘90s classics like Gangs, The Queen of Temple Street, and the Lee Rock films starring Andy Lau. Its editing was supervised by William Chang, a longtime collaborator of Wong Kar-wai, while production designer Cheung Siu-hong has worked extensively with director Heiward Mak, as well as on Johnnie To’s Three and John Woo’s The Crossing. The supporting cast includes Chin Siu-ho, co-star with Jet Li in Tai Chi Master and Fist of Legend, Tai-Bo, veteran of many ‘80s Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan films, and Tony Ho, from Fruit Chan’s The Longest Summer and Little Cheung. Chan Kin-long himself has had a solid acting career, with featured roles in The Midnight After, No. 1 Chung Ying Street, and Port of Call, three of the best Hong Kong films of the past decade. That’s to say, the film is fairly dripping in Hong Kong cred, and is itself primarily located in and around the Chungking Mansions, the maze-like apartment complex (more or less) made famous by Chungking Express.
The film starts where The Longest Summer did, with members of the colonial British army dismissed and set adrift at the time of the Handover. Gordon Lam Ka-ting (Sparrow, Infernal Affairs, Ip Man) is one of those soldiers, and we join him some time in the present, living in the Mansions and eyeing out a living on the edges of criminality. Why he’s no longer friends with his army buddies will become clear later, but for now he’s a loner, trying to make some cash to pay off a debt by selling turtles to a local gang boss. He gets mixed up with a young South Asian man (played by Bipin Karma), who has stolen a whole bunch of cocaine from that same boss, and coincidentally finds himself hiding out in Lam’s apartment, pursued by the boss’s menacing crew, led by Michael Ning (who was much more disturbing as the killer in Port of Call). What follows is a waiting game, as Lam and Karma slowly become friends and try to find a way out of their dilemmas — which quickly become intertwined, the fate of immigrant and native Hong Konger alike subject to the whims of forces beyond their control — without getting one or both of them killed. It ends, of course, in bloody violence, filmed, as these things must be by all young directors, in one single take, though one that’s admirably free of expressive movement or flashy choreography.
The film leans in hard on the sense of nostalgia for a past world. That has, to an extent, always been a part of Hong Kong crime cinema: old codes aren’t respected anymore and that’s why things have fallen apart, and so on. But beginning around the time of the last financial crisis, and Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle, Triad sagas ceased to be about anything remotely related to the state of criminality in Hong Kong (if they ever were that) and more and more explicitly about the Triad genre itself, specifically how they just don’t make ‘em like they used to anymore, and how sad we all are about that. Chan shoots a chase sequence in an open-air market off Temple Street that might be the same location as the opening chase in Ringo Lam’s City on Fire. Or it might not be, but instead just look kind of like it. The difference is that Lam shot his scene there because it looked cool: the billowing white sheets of the stalls splattered with blood, the crowded streets shoved aside by gangsters and movie cameras. But Chan’s scene is there because Lam was there first, and we all wish we could see City on Fire again for the first time.
For a variety of reasons (market dictates, pressure to conform to Mainland censorship policies, the collapse of the studio systems, competition from Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese, and Southeast Asian cinema, as well as Hollywood imports, the failure of new generations of on-screen and behind-the-scenes talent to replicate the success and originality of previous generations) the Hong Kong cinema is not what it used to be, and it likely never will be again. This is the implicit subject of even the best recent crime films. And as Hong Kong’s cinema goes, so goes the state of the colony-turned-Special Administrative Region. It’s hard to be optimistic about either.
Published as part of NYAFF 2021 — Dispatch 1.