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.
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