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)

The Silent Forest (無聲, Ko Chen-Nien, 2020)

There can be no justice in silence, but when those in a position to help refuse to listen what can be done? Inspired by true events, Ko Chen-Nien’s The Silent Forest (無聲, Wúshēng) takes aim at cycles of abuse and systems of oppression in society at large through a thorough investigation of the culture of silence at a school for deaf children in which endemic bullying spreads like a virus emanating from a single trauma inflicted by a negligent authority. Yet this kind of violence cannot be fought with violence and there must be empathy too for the bully or the chain will never end as Ko’s ambivalent conclusion makes clear. 

The film opens with a boy on the run, finally chasing down an old man and tackling him to the ground pummelling him until the police turn up and separate them. The policemen are frustrated. This is apparently the first time they’ve ever come into contact with a deaf person and have no idea how to communicate with him. Chang Cheng (Troy Liu Tzu-Chuan) tries to protest their injustice, but they continue to treat him as aggressor rather than victim even as he explains in writing that the old man had stolen his wallet (the old man claims he “found” it and was planning to hand it in). Finally a teacher from his new school, Mr. Wang (Liu Kuan-ting), turns up and interprets but it quickly becomes clear that he too is in a sense complicit, reporting that Cheng is sorry for what he did and grateful to the officers. In his view at least, the boy has his wallet back and there’s no harm done so why make a fuss? Just let it go and everyone goes home.

It’s this conflict between “silence” and justice that continues to prey upon Cheng’s mind after he starts at the school and becomes aware of the widespread culture of bullying witnessing a girl he likes being sexually abused by a gang of boys at the back of the school bus while the teacher sitting at the front does nothing. He tries to convince the girl, Beibei (Buffy Chen Yan-Fei), to tell one of the other teachers but she refuses, not wanting to “betray” her “friends”, insisting they were “just playing around”. Her reluctance however mainly stems from an intense fear of being sent away, that she might have to leave the school which is the only place she feels accepted. Both she and Cheng feel intensely othered in the hearing world, wary of being blamed for things that weren’t their fault as if their very existence were bothersome or “abnormal”. Even if it means putting up with extreme degradation, she would prefer it to the loneliness she felt before she found the school.

Yet the sense of social isolation is only one of the various oppressions to be found at the institution which ironically cultivates a culture of silence as regards the ongoing abuse as a means of preserving its reputation and therefore the “greater good” in providing the “safe space” from the social stigma the children face in the hearing world. Beibei points out that she was screaming, yet nobody could hear her. At first she tried to tell a teacher, but the teacher blamed it on her and implicitly on her disability insisting that the boys were “good kids” who were “just playing around” and didn’t understand she didn’t like it because she failed to communicate that she was uncomfortable. If they knew she was suffering they’d have stopped, the teacher insists before coldly walking away. Mr. Wang feels quite differently and wants to help but discovers that the culture of silence extends much deeper than he thought and the problem most likely cannot be solved through a few simple countermeasures but requires whole-scale systemic reform.

In fact, very little is done by the authorities leaving Chang Cheng with a hero complex believing that he has to be strong to beat the bad guys and save Beibei, but his righteous desire still leads him back towards complicity in order to protect her. The arch antagonist, Xiao Guang (Kim Hyun-Bin), bullies as a defence mechanism insisting that no one would dare bully him, manipulating others to do his bidding through the same mentality that one can either be a bully or a victim. Yet Xiao Guang is also a victim himself, a wounded damaged boy let down by a culture ruled by shame and unable to defend himself by any other means though apparently uniquely vulnerable to one particular aggressor. Only by addressing the root of his trauma can the cycle be brought to an end, but the concurrent cycles which he set in motion will in turn require their own resolution. A painful allegory, The Silent Forest boldly makes the case for speaking out but also admits that it doesn’t matter how loud you shout if no one is listening and without the desire for empathy and communication in all its forms the cycles will grow and repeat until the end of time.


The Silent Forest streams in Illinois until March 21 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Port of Call (踏血尋梅, Philip Yung, 2015)

port of call posterBoy meets girl. Girl says she wants to die. Boy says OK. Philip Yung’s third feature, Port of Call (踏血尋梅), attempts to find out how such a thing could happen and does so by means of a state of the nation address. Shot by Christopher Doyle, Yung’s early 21st century Hong Kong is a place of broken dreams and empty promises in which past traumas become inescapable phantoms, hungry for blood and pain. More than the sum of its parts, Port of Call is a murder mystery and noirish crime thriller which rejects its procedural roots for a deeper investigation of how a young man and a young woman might have been brought to such a desperate and tragic end.

Eccentric detective Chong (Aaron Kwok) finds himself investigating the disappearance of a 16 year old prostitute believed murdered due to evidence of extensive bloodstains at the presumed scene of crime. The culprit soon turns himself in and confesses to both murder and dismemberment, avowing that he killed the girl because she asked him to. It seems like an open and shut case, at least to Chong’s superiors, but Chong cannot quite let it go. How could someone meet another person for the first time and take something as banal as “I wish I were dead” so literally as to decide to help them achieve their wish?

Chong, a divorced father to a young daughter, wants to know the why but what he discovers shakes his own already weary heart. The murdered girl, Jia-mei (Jessie Li), came to Hong Kong a little while after her mother (Elaine Jin) and sister, following the divorce of her parents. Her mother, a nightclub singer, has little money and is rarely present. Lonely, Jia-mei dreams only of becoming a model but this is a city which eats dreams and so she finds herself working admin jobs at a modelling studio as well as working at McDonalds in the hope of escaping her unsatisfying home environment. Eventually she is pulled into the world of escorts and compensated dating before winding up as a casual prostitute who forms an unwise romantic attachment to a client.

Neither Chong, Jia-mei, or the damaged killer Chi-sung (Michael Ning) is able to escape the weight of the pain and suffering they have seen or experienced. A long term employee of the Regional Crimes Bureau, Chong has seen the most gruesome, heinous, and incomprehensible crimes culminating in an unforgettable 1998 murder and kidnap case in which he discovered a small child tied up next to decomposing body covered in fattened maggots and swarming flies. Chong no longer sleeps because of the bloody nightmares which see him take the place of both victim and observer, laid low by an escaping Chi-sung whose crime is recreated in glorious technicolor.

Jia-mei’s world is bloodier still even at such a young age. A disturbing Facebook post recounts the loss of her virginity as a young teenager as a gory battlefield in which she and her boyfriend roll around in bloody sheets. Apparently not the only depressed young girl, Jia-mei’s classmate grabs her scissors and slashes her wrists all while Jia-mei does nothing. As she later tells an online friend, it’s sad when no one sees you. Separated from her home and father, Jia-mei’s model dreams are less a vacuous search for fame as they are a desperate attempt for connection. Looking for love in all the wrong places, Jia-mei’s world gradually shrinks away from her as the emptiness of her transactional relationships produces the opposite of what she wanted, eventually sending her straight into the arms of the equally lonely Chi-sung.

Chi-shung’s problems also stem back to childhood trauma and feelings of abandonment, but have taken on an additional layer of resentment following the failure of his first love affair. A melancholy, damaged man, Chi-sung almost sees his crime as a kind of salvation, rescuing Jia-mei from becoming what he hated and what she longed not to be. His icy practicality is chilling as he recounts how he dismembered and disposed of the body as if he were simply describing how to cook spaghetti but even as he seems to regard his crime as a kindness, there is something else lurking at the bottom of his coolness.

Yung’s Hong Kong is cold and unforgiving. The policeman, the victim, and the killer are all, in a sense, displaced – from their families, from the normal world, and from their homes. Jia-mei’s search for affection and an end to loneliness took her to the loneliest of places, while Chi-sung kills the things he loves to save them the pain of being alive, and Chong solves crimes but is powerless to stop them. Told in four acts and with a non-linear structure, Port of Call is a meandering voyage through life’s unpleasantness in which trauma stains, pain grows, and loneliness kills the spirit. Yung’s unflinching look at the dark underpinning of modern society is a sad and hopeless one yet there are brief flashes of hope, if only in stray cats finding unexpected safe harbours.   


Original trailer (Cantonese with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)