The Sparring Partner (正義迴廊, Ho Cheuk-tin, 2022)

Loosely based on a real life case in which a man murdered his parents then reported them missing and even went to the media for help looking for them, Ho Cheuk-tin’s The Sparring Partner (正義迴廊) distances itself from the sensationalism of the crime to ask a series of questions about human nature and the operation of the criminal justice system. The first of those questions is obviously why, but not just why did he murder the people who raised him but why did he go to the media and why did he eventually decide to confess. 

One reason Henry (Yeung Wai-lun) gives for killing his parents is that his upbringing was abusive, a fact later confirmed by his sympathetic cousin herself a devout Christian. It seems fairly clear that Henry has an inferiority complex for which he blames his mother and father, resentful that they made him play piano and wouldn’t let him play basketball to which he attributes the small stature that led to merciless bullying in school and fractured masculinity in adulthood. Ho often places the camera slightly behind Henry’s shoulder, emphasising his smallness and neatly reflecting the way in which he literally feels as if everyone is looking down on him. He has so far had a life full of failure, studying abroad but failing to make the grade and resentful towards his more successful older brother Ho Jin to whom his parents force him to sign over his share of a flat they bought as an investment after Henry’s gambling debts and inability to find a job left him unable to pay the mortgage. Losing a flat in Hong Kong is worse than losing a life Henry’s lawyer points out at trial, attempting to justify the resentment that led to Henry’s decision to not only murder but brutally dismember his parents. 

Another question mark, however, hangs over Henry’s accomplice and why exactly he chose to take him down with him. Angus (Mak Pui-tung), a man he met at a job interview, seems to have learning difficulties and may not quite understand what is going on. His sister describes him as naive and explains that he has a tendency to make friends with those who only hope to exploit him and may have been manipulated by Henry in fear for the safety of himself and his family or else simply not to lose the friendship. The extent of his involvement with the crimes remains unclear, Henry claiming that he was present and participated in the killing of his mother, while Angus insists that he only took part in the disposal of the bodies. Perhaps uncomfortably the film asks how much we can really trust Angus, suggesting that he may simply be manipulating the sympathy of others and is not really quite as naive as he makes out. 

In any case, his treatment at the hands of the police is as unjust as it comes, intimidated into offering a confession simply to make the interrogation stop so that he sleep and get something to eat. In court the truth hardly matters, a trial is about constructing a credible narrative. The lawyers for joint defendants Angus and Henry attempt to undercut each other, Henry’s arguing he is not responsible on the grounds of mental illness while implicating Angus as the instigator, and Angus’ intent on emphasising his disability suggesting was merely manipulated by Henry. The jurors in the jury room struggle to make sense of the case but also of their own role, tasked not with assessing guilt or innocence but the strength of the argument based on the evidence they’ve been given only for some of them to base their convictions on gut instinct anyway. 

They are perhaps aware that Henry is a master manipulator, he lied to his own brother and fooled all of Hong Kong with his video appealing for support before dramatically confessing online. He has obvious delusions of grandeur and idolises Hitler, claiming that had he been born at the right time he could have done what Hitler did. Ho often dramatises his moments of introspection as fantasy in which Henry poses as Hitler and speaks German to those around him before snapping back to reality and finding him experiencing a moment of clarity that makes him step back. Yet there are moments of heartbreaking authenticity in the “friendship” between the two men such as in their meeting at the job interview as they bond in a shared sense of rejection, the subtext of their crimes inviting the reading that they are intended as acts of vengeance against the society into which neither of them was able integrate. 

In the closing scenes, a policeman remembers evidence left behind during the initial sweep of the crime scene by his incompetent boss and returns to Angus’ apartment to find a migrant family living there who tell him they know there was a murder but they don’t care about things like that and are just grateful to have a home. Henry too continues his dark jokes about permanently devaluing his family’s apartments, but seems genuinely distressed on realising that his brother really may abandon him for his total lack of remorse while Angus finds himself exploited by the tabloid press only too eager for all the gory details. Ho’s closing images which find Angus enveloped in the webs of the spiders which plague his dreams perhaps hints at his place in a complex network of forces which contribute to his exclusion from prejudice towards the disabled to fatphobia along with the manipulation of men like Henry who promise friendship but only take advantage of his inability to resist. Then again, the fact of the matter is that you’ll never really know the truth, whether Henry did it all for the attention and ended up alone anyway or if it really was Angus who planned everything and fooled all of Hong Kong, like the jury all you can do is weigh up the evidence and draw your own conclusions.  


The Sparring Partner screened as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival and will open in UK cinemas on Nov. 18 courtesy of CineAsia.

The Narrow Road (窄路微塵, Lam Sum, 2022)

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)