As the world leaves the Coronavirus pandemic behind, it is almost inevitable that it will become the subject of many films. The Narrow Road, a film set in Hong Kong in 2020, is an early entry into this genre. Yet it does not try to tell the story of the pandemic in Hong Kong, or even delve into the pandemic itself as a major plot point. Instead, the film uses the pandemic as its backdrop, against which it explores the lives of Chak, a cleaner, and Candy and Chu, a mother and daughter. They are characters near the bottom of society, struggling for survival. The Narrow Road explores the moral questions they face – and the futility felt daily by the invisible members of society who are all too frequently overlooked.
Chak (played by Louis Cheng) is a young owner of a cleaning company (‘Peter Pan cleaning’), struggling to pay his bills. He lives in a tiny apartment with his mother who suffers from arthritis and crippling gambling addiction. Candy (Angela Yuen) is a single mother who provides for her daughter Chu by lying and stealing – they live in an even smaller apartment. Their stories come together when Chak hires Candy as his assistant.
Lam Sum, the writer-director of The Narrow Road, explained in the post-screening Q&A that he began writing the script before the pandemic began. The story is all the better for it as it is centred around the human story of Chak, Candy and Chu with the pandemic serving as a backdrop. This elevates the film above traditional social commentary. Chak’s cleaning business is in high demand during the pandemic, disinfecting gyms and deep-cleaning restaurants. The film is fraught with pressure – the pressure to survive, to make a living amid a public health crisis.
Although the story is centred around Chak, Candy and Chu form its emotional core. There is a scene in the middle of the film where Chu hangs up a painting of a sea view in their windowless apartment. Now they can see outside, she declares proudly. Their destitution is made all the more striking by Candy’s visit to a wealthy apartment to clean. Not only do they have a magnificent view, but they have boxes of high-quality face masks. In contrast, Chak’s mother steams masks to disinfect and reuse them. In these scenes, the film makes pointed commentary on the inequalities that were widened by the pandemic.
From this point of view, the film manages to thematise the tension between morality – doing what is right – and the need to survive. As a single mother, Candy frequently steals and lies in front of her daughter. Chu’s childhood is marked by online homeschooling, long periods alone in the flat and sometimes joining her mother at work. At the same time, through Chak the film explores the monotony of city life – the struggle to make his business a success and his limited outlook for the future. As director Lam Sum said in the post-screening Q&A, he decided to focus on a cleaner as they are invisible in society, performing their jobs unseen and largely unnoticed.
The film’s trajectory is one of emotional highs and extreme lows. Lam Sum navigates them with a deft touch, allowing the audience to feel Chak’s pressures and Candy’s ethical dilemmas. The stakes are elevated by the inclusion of the pandemic – a context everyone can empathise with and understand. In the post-screening Q&A, Lam Sum explained that the title The Narrow Road referred to the hard times people faced in Hong Kong, in which they had to cling on and push through along a narrow path. But the story is also universal – a tale of modern metropolitan life and the challenges faced by the working class – wherever they may live.
The Narrow Road had its World Premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on August 15th.
Image credit: courtesy of EIFF press team, provided to The Student as press material.