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[NYAFF ’21] ‘Hand Rolled Cigarette’ review: Neo-noir crime thriller packed with emotion

Hand Rolled Cigarette begins during an interesting time in Hong Kong’s history. After over one hundred and fifty years under British rule, the territory was about to be transferred to China in 1997. The film follows a soldier named Kwan Chiu (Gordon Lam) in the former British colonial army. He decides to speculate in the stock market, but the 1997 Asian financial crisis leads to one man committing suicide and Kwan ostracized by his former friends.

Almost twenty-five years later, Kwan has developed a solid relationship with triads he has spent years working with. One day, Kwan meets a small-time thief named Mani. Mani offers Kwan $1 million to take him in for five days. Though the two are initially wary around each other, they soon form a bond. Predictably, complications arise, endangering both men’s lives.

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Hand Rolled Cigarette has a great look to it. The opening is shot in black and white during British rule. It underscores that it is a different time in Hong Kong. When the story is brought into the modern world, things are in color. The film takes on a noir look that matches the story being told. The suspense remains high and the writers do a great job of injecting emotion.

[NYAFF '21] 'Hand Rolled Cigarette' review: Neo-noir crime thriller packed with emotion

This is what makes it different from similar gangland movies. Things can get violent, and there is an amazing fight scene near the end of Hand Rolled Cigarette, but it does not rely on the more visceral parts of the movie to engage audiences. It is how the different characters react to each other and develop over the course of the film that makes it work so well. The more fast paced scenes are great to look at, but it is the drama that ties everything together.

There are some missteps along the way. The beginning sets up an era that means little in the current setting. Despite the many action scenes, there are moments when the first act of the plot may move a little too slowly for some. These end up being more nitpicks than anything else as the writing of Hand Rolled Cigarette will draw audiences in.

The New York Asian Film Festival takes place from August 6 – August 22. Screenings are live and online

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