A Simple Life/ Tao Jie
Directed by Ann Hui. Starring Andy Lau, Deanie Ip, Wang Fuli Club, IFI, Dublin, 118 min
CHUNG CHUN-TAO (Deanie Ip) has worked as a maid for the Leung family for 60 years. She now looks after older son Roger (Andy Lau) in Hong Kong; the rest of the family have emigrated to San Francisco. Roger, a film producer, commutes between Hong Kong and Beijing, meeting noted Hong Kong film-makers (Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung as themselves) along the way.
Returning home from the lengthy commute, Roger finds that his beloved “amah” has had a stroke. The altruistic domestic, concerned that one stroke will only lead to more, decides to retire and move into one of Kowloon’s crowded old folks’ homes. She makes friends among staff and fellow patients but soon starts to fade.
Director Ann Hui’s career began as one of the leading lights (and few female directors) of the Hong Kong New Wave. Her films have always thrived on intergenerational relations and the tensions between tradition and modernity.
In this spirit, Roger is seldom as callous or neglectful as the ungrateful youngsters of Tokyo Story. Indeed, he dotes on the old lady but is in no position to give up his life and work to tend to her as she has tended to him.
A Simple Life does not judge him harshly but unfolds, instead, as a heartbreaking, extended goodbye.
Hui’s interest in small moments and realism could seldom be mistaken for British kitchen sink miserabilism, despite Yu Lik-wa’s honest, unadorned cinematography. Her milieu is too contemplative and understanding to allow A Simple Life to play as outright tragedy or
as a showboating tearjerker. Her depiction of the care home celebrates the elderly. Her implied social critique never harangues.
The casting of the wonderful Lau (House of Flying Daggers) and his real-life granny, Deanie Ip, adds another dimension to the emotional impact, as does the knowledge that Hui’s screenplay is inspired by her producer Roger MH Lee’s relationship with his late housekeeper.
In keeping with the title and the heroine, A Simple Life is a straightforward and unassuming gem. No wonder the cast and crew cleaned up at last September’s Venice festival and this year’s Asian Film Awards. Don’t expect anything as shallow as Paris and Nicole.