So after a good number of average at best films, how about a contender for my end of the year list (and despite the 2011 date on IMDB I can include it as a 2012 release on a technicality!). Director Ann Hui is not the most prolific filmmaker, but she is usually an interesting watch. And here, she delivers something rather special.
Based on Producer Roger Lee’s true life experience “A Simple Life” tells the story of the relationship between Roger (Andy Lau) and his family maid Ah Tao (Deannie Ip). The rest of the family have moved on, some to America, others to their own families, but Ah Tao continues to help look after middle-aged Roger. One day she is stuck down by a stroke, and although Roger says he will get a new maid to look after her, she decides it is time to finally retire, and asks to be put into a Care Home. Roger and Ah Tao rediscover their relationship with each other over her final months in a touching and quiet drama.
Andy Lau is an actor I often have a great deal of problems with. He is in a huge number of great films, but I often fail to empathise with his characters, as he always comes across as somewhat arrogant to me. Here though, his persona is perfect – he is a hard working man, who initially appears to be taking what Ah Tao offers him for granted. Even when tragedy strikes, you get the sense to start with that he is just doing what is right, rather than out of any sense of care and affection. As time progresses though, you see he is utterly devoted to this woman, who not only has become a surrogate parent to him, but has helped him pursue his dreams of a career in Cinema. For me, this is an understated and excellent performance from the Actor, and should be applauded, as for many he is not going to be the main draw here.
Deannie Ip is a long time Hong Kong film staple (as well as a singer) usually to be found in supporting roles. In “A Simple Life” she is just marvellous. She is fussy and obsessed with the quality of her job, even after she has had to retire. She is single minded and focussed, yet at all times she is caring about those around her. This is most obvious with regards to Roger – but you see her relationships with his old friends, her fellow residents, and even the woman who is supervising her care. She is just one of those people who wants to look after everyone, and never seems to complain that she has not had a life of her own – there is no husband, no children of her own. Even those who like to poke fun at her for being a bit of a fusspot are doing it out of a love and respect for the woman. And to watch her health slowly decline, to see her spirit slowly ebb away, well it is a very special performance and well worth all the accolades that have been bestowed upon it.
Whilst the film is pretty much a two handed affair, there are plenty of fun supporting roles that add a little fun to proceedings. Some are Film industry characters playing themselves (Sammo Hung and Tsui Hark have a delightful sequence), whilst others such as Chapman To’s dentist and Anthony Wong’s quite surreal owner (and childhood buddy of Roger) manage to raise a little smile without disturbing the overall feel of the piece.
Hui delivers the film is a very measured way. She eschews flashbacks, relying instead on conversation and props to fill in the gaps. Slowly we see how she has looked after the whole family, but that Roger has always been her favourite. Moments like when she goes back to their apartment to throw away some junk (and she is quite the hoarder) shows a woman for whom memories mean everything. She does everything in her quiet way, never asking for anything from anyone else. She has for example kept Rogers old film magazines that inspired him as a child, and we find out she used to buy them for him, behind the back of a disapproving mother. Another sparkling moment is when it is revealed that Roger has a Heart Attack a few years back, and it was Ah Tao that nursed him back to health. There is some mild social commentary about the role of the elderly, and about how society cares for them, along with some subtle nudging about the fact she is a Servant, with all that entails – but this is all background stuff, food for thought, and it rarely forces any judgement upon you.
For some, the film could feel a little cold and distant. Yet, once you actually dig beneath the surface you realise that the intent is not to be manipulative and melodramatic, to force the viewer to actually care, but to allow the story of the characters themselves, and the performances make you care. It is a tender film, and it is no spoiler to say there is not going to be a happy ending, but at no point was I being forced to feel sad – in fact it was more a subtle celebration of a small, indeed a simple, life. Highly Recommended.