New York Asian Film Festival ‣ 手捲煙

The 20th Anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place August 6th through August 22nd both with both virtual and in-person screenings. Go to nyaff.org for more details.

There’s a pleasing simplicity to Kin Lang Chan’s Hand-Rolled Cigarette. It’s not a film that suffers from an abundance of originality in plot or theme. And those expecting an edge of your seat thriller might find themselves a little bored at first. But what makes the film a success is how the tension sneaks up on you… like the frog in the proverbial pot of simmering water (or turtle, if you don’t mind a bit of foreshadowing), the film slowly cranks up the heat, the walls closing in inch by inch until things explode in one of the most hysterical (in the most classical sense of the word) conclusions in recent memory.

And what keeps us occupied as the shit hits the fan is the exemplary performances by our leads Lam Ka Tung and Bipin Karma.

(And a scene stealing turtle that goes tragically uncredited… but once again we’ll get to all that soon enough).

The film begins with a clever bit of misdirection, a flashback from the handover of Hong Kong back to China from Great Britain, and the soldiers who weren’t given British citizenship, led by Ka Tung’s Chiu. We get the briefest glimpse their camaraderie, their hopes and dreams and their … before depositing us 23 years into the future, where their circumstances are very different.

Chiu has fallen far from his noble days of command, and ekes out a paltry existence as a middleman for the Triads. The bonds with his fellow soldiers have broken for reasons to be revealed later, and he has more debt than he can reasonably be expected to repay. It’s a life, but not much of one.

And into that life falls Mani, a low level drug dealer who happens to find himself in possession of a significant amount of coke stolen from Boss Tai… who just happens to have a pending deal with Chiu to smuggle fancy turtles into the country (as you do).

In short order, Mani stumbles into Chiu’s apartment, cuts a deal with him to hide out in exchange for enough money to pay off his debts, and… things go about as well as a noir loving viewer would hope they go.

So, not much in terms of originality, to be sure, but a more than effective setup for edge of your seat suspense. But that’s not the game Kin Long Chan is up to here. This is a character driven story above all else, much more interested in the evolving relationship between Chiu and Mani than in the machinations of any kind of clockwork plotting. And so to the film rests heavily on the performances of Tung and Karma, who deliver in spades.

Though it’s a fairly stock noir archetype, Tung invests Chiu with a certain resigned dignity, and really captures the weariness of his lifestyle, the way he willfully sublimates his regrets in order to suppress his quiet sense of desperation.

And he is perfectly matched by Bipin Karma, given the curious credit of “special recommendation”, which I’m assuming is a weird way of saying this is his feature debut. There’s something so disarmingly boyish in his performance that we are immediately sympathetic despite the circumstances;with his childlike curiosity, full-faced sincerity and complete and unfailing politeness, he is so obviously not cut out for a life of crime that it borders on the hilarious. He’s hopelessly outmatched and in over his head, and it’s due almost entirely to the inherent charisma of Karma that instead of laughing at this poor sap, we’re rooting for him to get out alive to make better choices.

(At this point it feels appropriate to reveal that though he doesn’t get listed in the cast credits, special attention must be paid to the unnamed golden turtle that Chiu finds himself taking care of post-smuggling deal; it steal scenes with the sort of lovable watchability usually reserved for extremely cute puppies).

The film alternates between housebound scenes of Mani and Chiu bonding, and Boss Tai’s thugs trying to track down the drugs, led by the blatantly psychopathic Chook (Michael Ning, doing the prototypical platinum blonde henchman gig very, very well). Kin Long Chan ratchets up the brutality scene by scene (a nice touch) so that by the time the two sides collide, the knowledge of what Chook is capable of hangs over the fates of Chiu and Mani like a Sword of Damocles.

Which, without giving too much away, brings us right back to the final act, a fight scene I choose not to describe except to marvel at just how over the top it was willing to go. It’s raw and crazed in a way that is utterly riveting to watch unfold, and even if the rest of the movie hadn’t gradually won me over once I adjusted to its rhythms,this set piece alone would make a very strong argument for the talents of Kin Lang Chan all its own.

Combined with Escape From Mogadishu as the second half of the opening night showcase, Hand-Rolled Cigarette is a slightly uneven but ultimately auspicious start to this twentieth anniversary festival.

And that ending is a hell of a note to walk out of a theater on…


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