Two unlikely friendships form during a catastrophic situation. One man is on the run for stealing an enormously large batch of cocaine from (I think) the Chinese Cartel, and another man is doing deals with them. On the run for his thievery, Mani (Bipin Carma) finds a strangers apartment to conceal himself within. Thanks to Mani’s impulsiveness, he’s painted a target on Chung’s (Lam Ka Tung) back. How or why all this happens is extremely conventional in a way that isn’t very intriguing to me. It’s more of the same situation, with the same old escape from the bad guy plot. The Safdie Brothers made a far better film with Good Time.
The decisions Chung makes in particular is far too convenient for the plot. I understand Chung and Mani are trapped in this hopeless situation, but why did Chung feel bad for the other guy in the first place? At one point in the film, Chung has to pretend to be the father of Mani’s younger brother so he can assist him with his school problems. Chung reluctantly agrees to help, but why does he assist in such a dangerous task outside of the script’s convenience? If the school were to find out Chung’s true identity, his whereabouts would be even more evident to the Cartel. Chung’s experience from being a retired British-Chinese soldier draws some connection to Mani. Whatever that emotional bond is didn’t feel authentic to me. All I saw was a home movie of him hanging out with his friends when he was a soldier sharing a hand rolled cigarette. What does that tell me?
It could have simply been my personal bias but I didn’t feel any emotional connection towards the two protagonists. I don’t know how Chung wound up selling drugs. From his flashbacks in service he seemed pretty happy. How did he become dejected? I want to see what led him to a life of crime. Aside from not wanting to get his little brother involved in his criminality, Mani comes off like a bufoon in the film. Mani keeps making obvious mistakes but fails to correct himself rendering him more as the village idiot than a character to root for. He has a good heart and ultimately learning the errors of his ways but it all comes at the luxury of the time mark rather than through concrete actions.
There’s enough suspense in the story to hold my attention. Predictably, these two will reach a climactic encounter with the Cartel, but we don’t know when or how it will be. In a bit of misdirection, the film cools everything down, letting the audience think things will be okay for our two anti heroes. Sharing a Hand Rolled Cigarette the reflecting on each other’s lives. That relaxation only lasts so long until the final act comes along, where everything goes haywire.
The final encounter with the Cartel mirrors the action of Old Boy and Netflix’s Daredevil; the camera follows our main character in a single dolly shot capturing all the carnage. The frame rests between two walls moving the tracks from a direct left-right trajectory allowing for simple movement and incredibly complex choreography.
Here’s where I enjoy Asian cinema. Unlike us yanks, Asian filmmakers know how to wow an audience with their fight scenes, keeping the camera wide gives us an unflinching full view of the encounters brutality. Much of the fight is obstructed through plastic curtains in the cellar or the chain links on a fence. Probably to conceal some stunts the budget couldn’t afford.
Hand Rolled Cigarette isn’t a high-budget movie, but its cinematography engulfs the grimy world it’s set in. Many of the color choices scream Blade Runner. The interior of Chung’s apartment is decorated in harsh orange street and multi colored neon signs, just like Rick Deckard’s apartment. The streets look like the ones Deckard navigated through in 2019 L.A. Of course, B.R. was inspired by Asian design; thus, the two films complement each other.
If it weren’t for the thrilling third act, Hand Rolled Cigarette could have avoided a recommendation, but wow is that a fight scene! Even if I’m not invested in the characters there’s enough energy, sightly cinematography and suspense to just barely hold my attention. For fans of thrillers or drug movies, this may be up your alley. After binging on the Sopranos I feel there’s much greater tales about criminals that can be told with a little more subtext. I’m sure there’s an enormity of context I’m missing. For that, perhaps the film is worth a revisit sometime.
I think the average movie goer will enjoy this film even if it wasn’t my cup of tea. Give it a try for yourself and let me know if you probably agree with my rating.