Portrait of a City: The Narrow Road

The Narrow Road is not a Covid movie. Yes, director Lam Sum’s feature film debut uses the pandemic as the backdrop to a story about a pair of working-class Hongkongers muddling through life as best they can, but that’s where the influence of the coronavirus that has demanded so much of our time over the last three years ends.

“We started to develop the story in 2018, long before Covid,” says Lam, seated in his distributor Golden Scene’s office a few days ahead of the gala premiere. “The original story focused on a cleaner, but it was also about all the people in the locations the cleaner worked at, across classes. But it was always about those who live hand-to-mouth, from paycheque to paycheque, in a city like Hong Kong.” At some point during 2020, as Lam waited patiently to get into production, he and co-writer Fean Chung Chu-fung decided to update the story to better reflect the anxiety that gripped the city overall in the wake of the protests in 2019 and then Covid. “It’s about how people survive a challenging situation, what they’re facing and how they live their lives.”

The result is The Narrow Road (窄路微塵), a contemplative, realist drama in the vein of some of Lam’s influences, Ken Loach (Bread and Roses, Sorry We Missed You) and local filmmaker Allen Fong Yuk-ping, whose Ah Ying (1983) starred non-professionals and chronicled a family’s everyday, sometimes mundane, aspirations. The Narrow Road rolls some of Chung and Lam’s own pandemic experiences into the story – like many of us Lam was stuck at home with two young children – for what is ultimately a reassuring and cathartic examination of life in flux.

“This is for Hongkongers,” says Lam. “I intentionally spoke to them at this moment and I think they’ll get it. It’s been a few tough, tough years. The environment, the city has changed. We’re all confused, depressed and we have no idea where we go next. The film acknowledges that we’re all suffering in a way.”

Lam, who’s lounging at the board room table across from his school chum and composer, multi-hyphenate Wong Hin-yan, studied cinema at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. They’ve been working together since. Lam made his graduation project at the HKAPA, and their long friendship/professional partnership is evident in the way they interact. Lam is the slightly retiring academic to Wong’s dry quipster.

“We’ve been friends since we were about 12 years old,” Lam says before being interrupted by Wong. “We started out playing music together. We were in a band, but I didn’t go to the APA. I just kept playing music,” adds Wong. Then Lam pipes up again. “I actually wanted to study theatre sound design; we both did. I applied twice. We were in a band so we were keen to learn more about the technical side of sound,” he says, as Wong chimes in with, “Neither of us got in.” They go back and forth like that quite a bit, so it’s easy to see why Lam tapped Wong to do the score for all his shorts. They’re something of a Hong Kong Steven Spielberg and John Williams. Lam perks up at the comparison. “Oh, we’ll take that.”

Lam, now based in London, and Wong, still living in Hong Kong, discovered cinema together at about 15, when they started “sharing VCDs,” as Wong puts it, the venerable and inexpensive format that ruled home video in Hong Kong in the 1990s and early 2000s. “You know how they had a side A and a side B. I remember getting 2001: A Space Odyssey from him,” says Lam. “I didn’t realise it but I played side B first. I watch it for an hour and see the credits,” he says with a laugh. “But it blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like it before. I was 16, I didn’t really have any idea what it was about but it made an impact.”

“My 2001 experience was on VHS,” Wong notes with a chuckle. “I recorded it off television but the tape ran out before it was over. That was before VCDs so I had to wait years to see how it ended.”

Whatever sparked them, together they started experimenting with shorts in high school after Lam’s dad gifted him with a DV camera in 2000, and eventually entered the IFVA’s shorts programme, where they made Drifting (2011, unconnected to the Jun Li film), Puma (2015), and Where Are We Going? (2017). Lam and Chung started developing The Narrow Road in 2018 with mm2, and we all know why it stalled. 

The Narrow Road begins at the height of Covid with the lone worker at an independent cleaning company, Chak (Louis Cheung Kai-chung), sanitising a restaurant late one night. He needs help, but with COVID wracking the city he’s on a budget. On a whim he accepts the intensely informal application from Candy (Angela Yuen Lai-lam), paying her in cash every night. He lives with his mother (Patra Au Ka-man), and she’s a single mom to Chu (newcomer Anna Tung On-na). Slowly but surely, the two develop a working relationship, then a friendship, despite being emotionally guarded before an error in judgment has ruinous consequences. Though some might consider Chak’s invitation to hotpot a romantic gesture, Lam and Chung make the daring decision not to tease out a love story between Chak and Candy. Instead they opt for a gentle narrative about connection amid isolation, selflessness, mustering up the courage to admit vulnerability and finding wells of forgiveness.

Many of the film’s strengths can be credited to the strong cast, which Lam was fortunate to win over to his side. Recently, there has been a trend among first-time filmmakers to seek funding from Create HK’s First Feature Film Initiative. The Narrow Road, however, was produced by mm2, a Singapore-based producer/distributor whose local arm has been investing in filmmakers in Hong Kong since 2015 under its Movie Makers Awards banner (Chan Chi-man’s Shadows, Jun Li’s Drifting). The mini-studio’s cred helps Lam land Louis Cheung (Breakout Brothers, the Storm Series), his first choice to play Chak. 

Cheung proved his dramatic bona fides in 2021’s Macau-set Madalena, which featured him as a cabbie whose past catches up to him. It was the first time he was able to demonstrate his range, and the performance turned him into a reliable lead. The Narrow Road proves the performance wasn’t a fluke. “When we had almost finished the final draft, we were thinking about what Chak looked like – the feeling we wanted him to convey. Originally he was a bit older and less likely to be able to change,” says Lam. “But Louis kind of fit the bill. Audiences think of him as funny, as a comedian, but we thought there was another side of him we didn’t often see. We thought we could use that contrast to help tell the story.” 

Cheung agreed almost immediately, and as an added bonus, he introduced Lam and Chung to some young actors he was tutoring in a workshop, among them Yuen (Chilli Laugh Story) in her first substantial role as Candy. “She was nervous, but that matched Candy’s anxiety,” says Lam of Yuen’s initial work. “But she had such a great dynamic with [Anna], and it made their relationship much more resonant.” Candy is also that rare beast in Hong Kong (and all) cinema: a well rounded female character. Candy is young and occasionally reckless, and sometimes forgets she has a daughter to care for. But she’s also affectionate and adoring, and engages with Chu whenever she can, and she’s not too proud to take a cleaning job to support them. Lam and Chung got input from Yuen, wives, girlfriends, and mothers-in-law in writing her, adding to the authenticity. “We shaped the character together.”

Lam and his small, nimble crew — which included APA classmates Chung (who contributed “Extras” to Ten Years), cinematographer Meteor Cheung Yu-hon (Table for Six), and sound designer Cyrus Hok Lun-tang (Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down) — shot the film in 21 days in August, 2021, almost exclusively at night, taking advantage of empty streets and restaurants early closing hours.

Trailer courtesy Golden Scene

The film opens with a scene of Chak spraying disinfectant around an eatery, dressed in full hazmat gear and wearing a gas mask. Lam is right: it is Loachian in its grey tone and quiet working class solitude, but as much as Lam focuses his camera on Hongkongers in the margins, it’s not grim. “Imagine that scene without music. It would be like a horror film,” notes Wong. “My goal was clear. This is a very warm film, it’s welcoming, and I didn’t want to emphasise its heaviness.

Wong — who is also a singer-songwriter — is currently preparing the release of his next full length album, as well as the score for an as-yet-untitled Macanese film. And Lam is working on the script for what might be his next feature (with Chung) that will examine the mass migration of Hongkongers over the last few years and the communities that are growing up overseas. Lam is indeed one of them, but he hasn’t ruled out the idea of making more films in Hong Kong. “Everything is so uncertain,” he says. “Who knows what will happen?” 

But he hopes for the best, and expects Hongkongers to do what they do best: Look out for each other. It’s why The Narrow Road is ultimately about compassion, he says. “I think it has a positive ending; a happy ending. I wanted to end on a note of hope. The important thing is we have each other. I don’t think Chak is just ‘saving’ Candy. He gains something from his compassionate action too.”

The Narrow Road opens on December 22.

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