Drifting (濁水漂流, Jun Li, 2021)

“It’s just a bigger prison out there anyway” a prisoner tells his jailer surprised by his lack of enthusiasm for “freedom”. Following transgender drama Tracey, Jun Li continues his exploration of the marginalised citizens of contemporary Hong Kong with Drifting (濁水漂流), in this case the growing numbers of the unhoused who find themselves unfairly victimised by an increasingly authoritarian regime all while the city’s famous housing problem sprouts new blocks of luxury condos daily further displacing those without the means to live in them. 

Released from prison Fai (Francis Ng Chun-yu) has nowhere else to go but back to the streets where he is welcomed by a ritualistic shot of heroin gifted by street godfather Master (Tse Kwan-ho), a refugee from Vietnam occupying a liminal status neither able to leave or remain owing to a criminal conviction which prevents his asylum in this or any other country. Fai’s attempts to rebuild his life are however frustrated when the community he is a part of falls victim to “street cleaning” in which uniformed officers turn up without warning to move them on, taking what little possessions they have and disposing of them as rubbish. This proves too much of an indignity for Fai who, along with the others and the help of social worker Ms Ho (Cecilia Choi Sze-wan), launches a law suit against the city both for damages against their stolen property and for an apology for the way in which they have been treated. 

“I am homeless. I am not worthless” runs the chant the small band of protestors recites outside the offices of government, but it’s a feeling that many of them find hard to internalise. Shing (Chu Pak-hong), a long time drug user, is originally afraid of the lawsuit because of the shame of people finding out about his drug use, relenting only when reminded he can file anonymously and thereafter wearing a medical mask just to be sure he can’t be identified. Fai, by contrast, agrees to be the face of the campaign but is frustrated by the approach of the media who, he feels, are not truly interested in publicising his case only in his “sob story” which he refuses to give them. Time and again, the homeless community is exploited by well-meaning do-gooders including a large number of students who either patronise them with ironic tasks or romanticise the homeless “experience”. 

Social worker Ms Ho is the only one who genuinely tries to help but even she finds her interventions sometimes cause more harm than good. While a friend of Fai’s darkly comments that her wheelchair gives her an advantage applying for public housing, Fai struggles to see a future for himself on the streets lamenting that no one’s going to hire him anyway and explaining that his drug use is a self-destructive way of killing time in an attempt to escape the boredom and despair of his futile existence. During the court case, he voluntarily enters rehab to try and come off drugs but also finds himself suffering with a serious illness for which he is afraid to get treatment because “hospitals are not a place for the living”. 

Echoing Fai’s distaste for the fetishisation of poverty, Li offers only sparse details of what brought these men and women to the streets save that many of them have been imprisoned which gives them a healthy scepticism when it comes to dealing with the justice system. Offered a settlement, most of the community want to accept but Fai is minded to hold out. The money is not so important to him, he’s replaced the things he needs, what he wants is his dignity in being given a proper apology and an acknowledgement as a human being. “Where can poor people live?” he asks, peering from the scaffolding on a half-completed luxury condo building witnessing gentrification in action as it towers over a slum knowing that its presence only means more “street cleaning” while people like him are pushed further into the margins, continually displaced by an economic prosperity to which they are not invited. “No one can save anyone” Fai finds himself admitting, the solidarity of the homeless community eventually shattered by their conflicting goals even as they continue to care for each other as best they can. Anchored by a standout performance from Francis Ng Chun-yu as the weary, defeated Fai battling his own traumas in addition to those of the world around him, Drifting paints a bleak picture of an increasingly unequal society seemingly content to abandon its most vulnerable citizens to the vagaries of a marginal existence. 


Drifting screens at the BFI Southbank on 15th July as the opening night gala of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hand Rolled Cigarette (手捲煙, Chan Kin-long, 2020)

A former serviceman turned triad middleman bonds with a similarly oppressed South Asian petty criminal in Chan Kin-long’s noirish crime drama Hand Rolled Cigarette (手捲煙). An unexpected awards contender, the first directorial effort from actor Chan aligns its disparate heroes as two men in a sense betrayed by the world in which they live, one longing for a way out and the other too convinced he no longer deserves one to continue looking. 

“Let’s start over” Chiu (Gordon Lam Ka-tung) philosophically muses over a cigarette contemplating the coming handover. As a brief title card explains, when the British Army pulled out of Hong Kong, it hung its local recruits out to dry, disbanding their units and leaving them entirely without support. 25 years later, Chiu has become a dejected triad middleman, as we first meet him setting up a dubious deal for smuggled turtles between Taiwanese mobster Pickle (To Yin-gor) and local top dog Boss Tai (Ben Yuen). On his way back to his flat in Chungking Mansions, Chiu literally runs into a South Asian man apparently in the middle of a drug deal. Kapil (Bitto Singh Hartihan) dreams of bigger prizes, listening to the stock market report on the morning news and musing about robbing a bank. His cousin Mani (Bipin Karma), more conflicted in their criminal activities, cautions him against it reminding him that they already face discrimination and don’t need to add to their precarious position by giving their ethnicity a bad name. “If we have money people can’t look down on us” Kapil counters, seemingly desperate to escape his difficult circumstances by any means possible which eventually leads him to make the incredibly bad decision to cheat local triads out of their drug supply. Leaving Mani and his schoolboy brother Mansu (Anees) alone to carry the can (literally), Kapil takes off while Mani finds himself crawling into Chiu’s flat for refuge when chased by Boss Tai’s chief goon Chook (Michael Ning). Unwilling at first, Chiu agrees to let Mani stay, for a price, only to find himself falling ever deeper into a grim nexus of underworld drama. 

Chiu’s plight as a former British serviceman makes him in a sense an exile in his own land, a displaced soul free floating without clear direction unable to move on from the colonial past. We later learn that he is in a sense attempting to atone for a karmic debt relating to the death of a friend during the Asian financial crisis, also beginning in 1997, of which he was a double victim. Most of his old army buddies have moved on and found new ways of living, some of them rejecting him for his role in their friend’s death and tendency to get himself into trouble while Chiu can only descend further into nihilistic self-loathing in his self-destructive triad-adjacent lifestyle. 

Mani, by contrast, did not approve of his cousin’s criminality, particularly resenting him for using Mansu’s schoolbag as a means of shifting drugs. He dreams of a better life but sees few other options for himself, hoping at least to send Mansu to university and ensure he doesn’t share the same fate. Chiu continues to refer to him solely by a racial slur, but simultaneously intervenes in the marketplace when Chook and his guys hassle another South Asian guy insisting that they’re all locals and therefore all his “homies”, despite himself warming to the young man and even going so far as to sort out child care for Mansu otherwise left on his own. “Harmony brings wealth” Boss Tai ironically exclaims, but harmony is it seems hard to come by, Chiu’s sometime Mainland girlfriend expressing a desire to return because the city is not as she assumed it would be while little Mansu is constantly getting in fights because the other kids won’t play with him. 

“There’s always a way out. I’ll start over” Chiu again tells Mani, though he seems unconvinced. Clearing his debts karmic and otherwise, Chiu discovers only more emptiness and futility while perhaps redeeming himself in rebelling against the world of infinite corruption that proved so difficult to escape. A moody social drama with noir flourishes, Chan’s fatalistic crime story is one of national betrayals culminating in a highly stylised, unusually brutal action finale partially set in the green-tinted hellscape of a gangster’s illegal operating theatre. Men like Chiu, it seems, may not be able to survive in the new Hong Kong but then perhaps few can. 


Hand Rolled Cigarette streams in Europe until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)