Month: January 2015

A Simple Life (桃姐)

ASL main Poster5

A Simple Life is a love story, not the effusive kind brimming with laughter or smothered in kisses and certainly not the romantic kind, but one that strips love down to its elemental nature and shows it in its barest form. Its two protagonists appear to keep a distance that’s easy to dismiss; they are, after all, servant and master. But behind their sometimes cold interactions is a deep affection that overcomes their social positions.

Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) has served the Leung family for sixty years. Orphaned at a young age, she once again finds herself alone. The only member of the family left to take care of is Roger (Andy Lau), a film producer who frequently travels to the Mainland for work (the story is based on the memories of the real-life Roger Lee, the movie’s co-writer). The rest have emigrated to America and rarely return to Hong Kong. Ah Tao walks with a slight shuffle and pauses between staircase landings. She is long past retirement age, though no one seems to have paid attention to that. And so without any relatives or identity beyond that of the Leung family, she stays on as their caretaker.

She has also, without Roger’s realization, become his most enduring relationship. They have a shorthand that plays out wordlessly, mime-like. When he sits down for breakfast, Ah Tao has already set out his meal, sans a bowl of soup which she places moments later into his outreached hand. For someone like myself who was brought up to do her own damn chores, and in adulthood to cook her own meals, there’s a level of discomfort in seeing the two silently glide through the scene. There are no polite nods of acknowledgement or even mumbled “thank yous” to pierce the quiet.

That dynamic quickly shifts, however, when Ah Tao suffers a stroke early on the movie. Roger is at her hospital bedside when she tells him she’s quitting and wants to move into a retirement home. He throws up a few words of protest that do little to dissuade her and then takes up the dry task of finding a suitable residence. He settles on one mostly because it is run by an old friend (Anthony Wong) who cuts him a deal and promises Ah Tao special treatment.

The role reversal reveals the depth of their attachment to one another. Roger is far more attuned to maintaining relationships on a film set than he is in his own home (and gets help from cameos by Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung), and at first, his doting seems obligatory. But despite his characteristic reserve, his feelings for his longtime servant and surrogate mother begin to surface. He and his friends call her up and reminisce with genuine fondness. He teases her about a flirty resident (Paul Chun) only for her to shoot back with questions about his fallow love life.

At the same time, Ah Tao allows herself to assume a different role in Roger’s life. She takes quiet delight when he’s mistaken for her godson, a misunderstanding he doesn’t bother to correct. When they sit huddled on a floor combing through a chest of her belongings, it is a scene of ritual remembrance undertaken by parents and children. They relive shared memories and she passes on those he does not recall. Their closeness is emphasized by a visit from his mother, who brings formality but not familiarity to the dynamic.

The film’s strength lies in director and co-writer Ann Hui’s discipline. She has a poetic eye that shies away from the showy moments of the story and instead focuses on the after-effects. Ah Tao’s heart attack, for example, happens off-screen as does the death of another nursing home resident. Hui’s camera sifts through the landscape and seems to stumble on details almost accidentally, lingering on something or someone just long enough to show curiosity but not too long to gawk at its subject. When Ah Tao first enters the home, she spies a row of residents strapped to their chairs. A woman gumming a sippy cup catches her attention, and Hui politely turns away after a few seconds, capturing Ah Tao’s reaction in the process.

There is also restraint in tone for a setting rich in opportunities for social criticism. Hui allows for points of commentary, such as when Roger attempts to cut through the nursing home’s obfuscation, but this ultimately isn’t a campaign for better treatment of the elderly. It’s a film about love but also about variations on that theme -loneliness and growing old. A Simple Life is neither oppressive in its portrait of old age nor does it try to overcompensate with excessive optimism.

Besides Hui’s direction, the performances also merit praise, and Ip and Lau have been rewarded generously. Ip nabbed the Best Actress gong at the Venice Film Festival for her role and both were lauded at various Asian award ceremonies. I’m not sure how many actresses in Hong Kong would age up to play Ah Tao, but Ip does so unabashedly and flawlessly. It’s not that her mannerisms remind you of your grandmother, though they do, but that she gives tremendous life to a character who’s done her best to hide herself. She throws some wicked side eye besides. Whereas Ip’s performance demands attention, Lau is at his most unobtrusive. Like much of the film, his acting is understated, a single man accustomed to being in the shadows of show business and even his mother’s presence. Elena Kong also deserves recognition as the daughter of a resident who feels the Learian burden of proving her love for her mother. In a movie filled with bursts of poignancy, her subplot might best exposes the pain of love and family.

Released: 2011
Prod: Roger Lee 李恩霖; Ann Hui 許鞍華; Jessica Chan 陳佩華; Nansun Shi 施南生; Cheung Hong-Tat 張康達; Stephen Lam 林炳坤
Dir: Ann Hui 許鞍華
Writer: Susan Chan 陳淑賢; Roger Lee 李恩霖
Cast: Deannie Ip 葉德嫻; Andy Lau 劉德華; Qin Hailu 秦海璐; Wang Fuli 王馥荔; Paul Chun 秦沛; Leung Tin 梁天; Hui Siu-Ying 許素瑩; Hui Pik-Kei 許碧姬; Elena Kong 江美儀; Yu Man-Si 余文詩; Jason Chan 陳智燊; Anthony Wong 黃秋生; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Eman Lam 林二汶; Lam Yee-Lok 林以諾; Queenie Chu 朱慧敏; Tsui Hark 徐克; Sammo Hung 洪金寶; Jim Chim 詹瑞文; Francis Mak 麥潤壽; Lawrence Lau 劉國昌; Gung Suet-Fa 宮雪花; Helena Law 羅蘭
Time: 118 min
Lang: Cantonese, some Mandarin, English, and Korean
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

2 Become 1 (天生一對)

2 become 1

2 Become 1’s greatest value is as a public service announcement for breast cancer awareness. And inasmuch as I favor helping women recognize the importance of regular checkups and anything that lessens the stigma of breast cancer, I heartily endorse this movie. It shouldn’t feel as bold as it does, but it’s a rarity in a Hong Kong film landscape that tends to skirt around such concrete issues, especially those facing women. So kudos to this film for not only including a female character with breast cancer but for making it, and not a daffy romance, the central issue.

That’s not to say love isn’t in the air, or that the movie isn’t daffy. 2 Become 1 still qualifies as a romance, and it’s through this angle that Bingo (Miriam Yeung), an uptight marketer, finds out she has the disease. She and Vincent (Richie Ren) spot each other twice in one night and promptly end up in bed together, but just long enough for him to feel her up and discover a lump. She doesn’t know he’s a doctor, however, and assumes he’s a pervert. Nevertheless, she heeds his warning and gets herself checked out.

When her tests come back positive, Bingo goes through various stages of grief, though not always in the prescribed order. At various points, she accepts her diagnosis with a positive attitude, tries to reason her way to better health, and decides she’d rather just end it all. Yeung captures Bingo’s conflicted emotions at critical moments – when she first learns she has cancer and then finds Vincent hanging around in the waiting room, when she tries to tell her boss so that she can take sick leave, when she reconnects with a lost love under trying circumstances. But she’s not skilled enough of an actress to stitch her dramatic scenes with her comedic ones, and Bingo ends up being an inconsistent and not always empathetic character. A relationship she handles relatively well is the one Bingo has with her family, where there’s plenty of talking but little communication, and Yeung does a better job balancing her comedic tendencies with the subject matter.

Unfortunately, the movie takes an unnecessary turn south with Ren’s character. Not content to leave him in a supporting role, Vincent gets a ridiculous subplot that trivializes Bingo’s story. His initial experience with her left him so traumatized, on level with 9/11 and the Indian Ocean tsunami survivors, that he’s gone flaccid. He inserts himself back into Bingo’s life not out of concern for her so much as he believes that dating her will help him overcome his erectile dysfunction.

That is clearly done for laughs, as is a scene where Bingo’s fey friend helps her do a self-exam. The humor doesn’t stand out but has its uses in a society that isn’t comfortable talking so openly about breast cancer. It helps also that Yeung and Ren tackle the subject without reservation. Still, I probably would have enjoyed the movie more if attempted to treat the story in a more personal manner. Too often the script reads like a public health department info sheet and checklist, and if that’s what they’re aiming for, I might as well have watched an actual PSA. At least that’s shorter.

“Fated” (天生注定) by Miriam Yeung and Richie Ren:

“You’ll Shine Again” by Justin Lo:

“A Song a Day” by Justin Lo, and my favorite part of the movie:

Released: 2006
Prod: Johnnie To 杜琪峰
Dir: Law Wing-Cheong 羅永昌
Writer: Andrew Fung 馮志強
Cast: Miriam Yeung 楊千嬅; Richie Ren 任賢齊; Jo Kuk 谷祖琳; Guo Tao 郭濤; Victoria Wu 鄔玉君; Justin Lo 側田; Maggie Siu 邵美琪; Chun Wong 秦煌; Lily Li 李麗麗; Ai Wai 艾威; Florence Kwok 郭少芸; Gordon Lam 林家棟; Fung Hak-On 馮克安; Eddie Cheung 張兆輝; Hui Siu-Hung 許紹雄
Time: 97 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

Where God Left His Shoes

where god left his shoes

This probably isn’t the Christmas movie you’re looking for, but it’s better than almost any you’ll see. Suitable for all seasons but particularly apt for the holidays, Where God Left His Shoes shakes you from the idyllic glow of trees by the fireplace and colored lights around the windows, if that’s the life you’re living. Instead, it takes you into the cold, wet streets of New York City and follows a homeless man as he searches for a job in order to secure an apartment for his family by Christmas Day.

It’s a story ripe for preaching and sentimentality but writer and director Salvatore Stabile doesn’t exploit his material. Instead, he falls back on brilliant performances, most notably from John Leguizamo and David Castro. Leguizamo stars as Frank Diaz, a boxer who loses a match, gets dropped from an upcoming card, and ends up evicted all in short order. He moves into a homeless shelter with his wife Angela (Leonor Varela), their daughter Christina (Samantha Rose), and his stepson Justin (Castro). After several months and no prospects of a steady job, the stress begins to wear even more heavily on him.

The family receives good news on Christmas Eve when they learn that they’ve been allocated an apartment. Frank takes his son to get things in order only to discover that they don’t qualify because he lacks a stable income. After some pleading, he gets a small reprieve and has until the end of the day to find a job. Most of the movie shows Frank and Justin as they frantically search for something, anything, that will allow them to leave the shelter and move into their own home. Things become increasingly desperate as favorable prospects turn into familiar rejections.

The movie could easily turn into a social commentary on a system that in trying to help those on the margins gets endlessly tangled in its own bureaucracy. But the focus falls on a more personal story, as if the problems plaguing institutions don’t merit the attention that human emotions do. Frank is a veteran of the first Gulf War, a convicted felon, and likely a dropout as Justin does most of his reading and writing. More importantly though, he’s a decent man who strives to live with dignity in a society that doesn’t give him many opportunities to do that.

Leguizamo delivers a brutal performance, one that aches in its restraint. He captures Frank’s despair not just at his inability to find a job but also his perceived failure to protect his family, to shield his children, and generally to live up to his own expectations. Yet while he burns with frustration at the many obstacles he encounters, those feelings are tempered with tremendous love. Many of Leguizamo’s most moving scenes are with Castro, who is superb in his role. He brings great depth to his character, a mouthy kid who gives as much as he takes but whose insolence belies a boy longing for the steady assurance of his parents’ love. Not to be dismissed is Varela’s performance as Frank’s wife. She has far fewer scenes but still shines as a woman whose struggles are no less than her husband’s.

Where God Left His Shoes certainly won’t leave you feeling cozy about the holidays and is an all too realistic portrait of Christmas as it really is. But it’s a gift of a movie, one that earns its emotional response. The film disturbs and frustrates but it also brings a measure of hope, showing more Christmas spirit in its final moments than reels of overly manufactured saccharine hits.

Released: 2007
Prod: Michael Caldwell, Daniel Edelman, Richard Hutton, Salvatore Stabile
Dir: Salvatore Stabile
Writer: Salvatore Stabile
Cast: John Leguizamo, Leonor Varela, David Castro, Samantha Rose, Jerry Ferrara, Cheryl Freeman, Charles Dumas, Adriane Lenox
Time: 99 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015