An earnest middle-aged man and a cynical young woman become unlikely friends in pandemic-era Hong Kong in Lam Sum’s melancholy drama, The Narrow Road (窄路微塵). The narrow road is indeed the line they have to walk as they find their already precarious lives straitened by the increasing pressures of life under corona with few possibilities open to them other than to trust in each other and discover unexpected solidarity in their contradictory approaches to life.
As a customer later suggests, some might say the pandemic is good for those like Chak (Louis Cheung) who runs a one man cleaning business, turning up after hours to disinfect cafes and offices which are still technically open but forced to close early because of the current restrictions. But as we can see Chak is exhausted and his faithful van which has the logo of his company proudly emblazoned on the side is on its last legs. He lives a simple life with his elderly mother who suffers with arthritis but is afraid of the expense of going to the doctor and seems to find joy only in the vague hope of getting lucky on the horses or else the lottery.
A good-hearted man, Chak’s philosophy is life in that if you work hard and do everything properly then you’ll be alright. Hoping to take advantage of an increase in trade he takes on a young single mother, Candy (Angela Yuen), as an assistant but her outlook is the polar opposite of his as he discovers on spotting her pilfering ice cream bars from a convenience store after the clerk told her the discount had expired because she arrived a new moments after midnight. Cynical because of her experiences, Candy doesn’t see why she or her daughter should go without just because they don’t have money when some have so much they’d hardly notice a little missing, nor does she see the problem with cutting corners when it’s not like anyone notices anyway but Chak points out he’d know and wouldn’t like to feel as if he’d cheated someone or broken his word.
But then desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. Chak’s cleaning business is as reliant on a circulating economy as any other as he discovers when the disinfectants he needs for his work are on backorder from a supplier because of pandemic-related delays. When the pair are dispatched to clean up after a lonely death, it plunges Candy into a moment of existential crisis if the result of life is ending up as a stain on someone’s floor to be washed away by a stranger who is themselves faceless and invisible, merely “a cleaner”. As the pair work at night when no one else is around, it’s as if these properties are cleaned by magic, sparkling and new the next day, when the reality is that their work is more important than ever in ensuring public safety not to mention allowing other people to continue operating their businesses confident that they’re doing everything they can to protect their customers.
In a poignant moment, Candy looks out at the beautiful view from a child’s bedroom in a wealthy family’s apartment and reflects that her living space does not even have a window. Her small daughter Chu eventually draws a picture of one they stick on the wall behind makeshift curtains making do with only the illusion of the light and air they have so far been denied because of their poverty. The world around them seems to be shrinking with businesses across the city closing their doors for good while those with the means to do so are choosing to go abroad for obvious political reasons hoping to start again somewhere else. Chak can only do his best to ride the waves and when even that isn’t possible to keep looking forward even if it means settling for what the moment allows while trying not to let it make him cynical or resentful. The world’s messed up but you don’t have to be, he tries to tell Candy, reminding her that children are sponges and that the lessons she’s teaching her daughter might not serve her well in adulthood. “You’ll hate me when you’re grown up” Candy concedes on doing another midnight flight to another “temporary” situation albeit one which does at least come with a window.
Still as Chak says, they might be smaller than dust but if God doesn’t see them it doesn’t matter as long as they see each other echoing the film’s central message of togetherness and solidarity not just amid the difficult background of the pandemic but as a philosophy for life. Lam’s unshowy yet poetic and beautifully lensed photography captures the sense of shrinking isolation in the early days of COVID-19 while subtly contrasting the fortunes of those like Chak and Candy living in tiny airless spaces who are forced to risk their lives with those who their labour protects. “Are poor people sentenced to death?” Candy asks and forces a concession that perhaps they are by the vagaries of an unfeeling, increasingly capitalistic society.
The Narrow Road screens in Chicago on Oct. 29 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
Original trailer (English subtitles)