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A Simple Life

Posted by martinteller on October 28, 2012

Roger (Andy Lau) is a movie producer.  Ah Tao (Deannie Yip) has been a servant for his family for 60 years, now working solely for Roger in Hong Kong after the rest of his family has moved to America.  When Ah Tao suffers a stroke, she decides to retire and move into an old folks’ home.

That is the simple plot of this simple movie about a “simple life” but it is rich in its simplicities.  Ann Hui is a director I’ve been meaning to check out for a long time, I’m glad I finally got around to it.  The movie speaks in very small moments as Roger visits and cares for his former servant.  He’s clearly closer to her than to his own family… to spare everyone long and potentially uncomfortable explanations, he refers to himself as her godson in the presence of others.  The two have a wonderfully warm relationship that doesn’t beat you over the head with touching scenes.  For the most part, Hui avoids tugging on the heartstrings, instead defining their bond with small gestures, like Ah Tao inquiring about the cat (an adorable Scottish fold named KaKa) or the two discussing food (food is a recurring theme, emphasizing how it’s used to express love and caring) or taking a stroll together.

Nor does the film attempt to be a scathing condemnation of the nursing home system.  There are obvious criticisms — the impersonal, menu-like breakdown of costs, the impersonal, cold atmosphere — but Hui does not paint it as a hellish environment, she shows that there some sense of community there.  Like all things in the movie, there is nuance and ambiguity to the depiction of the home, you are left to draw your own conclusions.

The film has some parallels to reality.  Yip is Lau’s real-life godmother, and the two worked in a string of movies together in the late 80’s and 90’s.  The story is based on true events from writer/producer Yan-lam Lee’s life.  The cast is peppered with small roles and cameos by giants of the Hong Kong film industry, including (but not limited to) Sammo Hung, Gordan Lam, Raymond Chow and Tsui Hark.

The cinematography is thoughtful but unobtrusive, often framing characters in isolation.  The music is a bit overdone with the tinkly-ness but it’s quite nice.  Lau is excellent, but it’s really Yip’s show.  She gives an incredible performance, very subtle and warm and dignified.  Her character isn’t drawn in broad strokes… she’s not an irascible old crank, or a lovable granny figure, or the spunky dame who’s going to liven up the nursing home.  She’s just a simple person, but a lovable one, because we see her love and be loved.  A very tender and endearing work.  Rating: Very Good (83)


2 Responses to “A Simple Life”

  1. JC said

    I was hoping you’d get around to see this one. I saw this at a film festival last year and i’m still waiting for a bluray release! Good to hear you enjoyed it, as I’d even rank this in the low 90s somewhere. Lau and Yip were just amazing and all those subtle moments in the film were much more effective than the usual hollywood stuff.

    • It didn’t move me enough for a low 90’s, but mid-to-high 80’s isn’t out of the question. There was a moment or two that maybe felt a little too on-the-nose. Thanks for commenting!

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