Review: A SIMPLE LIFE earns your praise and a few tears
Six months and more than half a dozen film festival appearances later, Hong Kong audiences are finally given the opportunity to see their supposed "Best Film of 2011", as Ann Hui's award-winning drama goes on general release this weekend. Already the film has swept a number of awards both in Asia and overseas and is likely to do the same both at this month's Asian Film Awards and next month's Hong Kong Film Awards. But beyond a standout lead performance from veteran actress Deanie Ip, does the film offer much else to audiences?
Despite a large supporting cast boasting a number of big-name cameos, A SIMPLE LIFE is essentially a two-hander, exploring the relationship between successful Hong Kong movie producer Roger Cheung (Andy Lau) and his family's housemaid of 60 years, Ah Tao (Ip). After the rest of the family emigrates to the USA, Roger keeps Ah Tao on as a live-in cook, cleaner and surrogate family. He is so used to having Ah Tao around that it is only when she suffers a stroke and must be relocated to a nursing home that Roger is able to take stock of the influence and importance Ah Tao has played in his life. The tables are turned and Roger must now care for Ah Tao, realising that he is the only family the old woman has, or indeed desires.
While the film's script, penned by Susan Chan and first-time writer-producer Lee Yan-lam, develops the two characters in fairly simple and predictable arcs - Roger realises how much he owes Ah Tao, the importance of self-sacrifice and the joy gleaned from having and interacting with a family, while Ah Tao backs down from her stubborn, selfless existence and learns to accept the kindness and support of others - in the hands of a proven realist like Ann Hui there is an honesty and immediacy to the story that keeps us wholly engaged with this transitioning relationship. The film also touches on other, socially conscious topics - most notably the heartless and profit-oriented manner in which many nursing homes are run in the city - but maintains its focus and never becomes preachy at the expense of its central narrative.
One of the film's major selling points has been its star-heavy roster of cameo performers, many of who play themselves. However, in my opinion these moments often jar the audience out of the film and distract from the central drama. The sole reason for Andy Lau's character being a successful producer seems to be so he can repeatedly share the screen with the likes of Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark or Ning Hao, all playing themselves and lampooning their public image for a solid if rather cheap laugh. I'm sure Ann Hui's intention was to present another layer to her central theme that we must work together as a community and provide a support network for each other to accomplish hard-fought goals (like getting this film made), but it really added nothing to the film.
Conversely, the biggest reason why A SIMPLE LIFE does succeed in being a touching, heartfelt and repeatedly humorous experience, are the wonderful central performances from Andy Lau and most notably Deanie Ip. I would be hard-pressed to remember the last time a character well into her 70s was proffered such a nuanced and developed characterisation, rather than immediately falling into some single stereotype that could be milked for a few laughs or tears, before being discarded. Ip earns not only our sympathies as a good natured person nearing the end of her time, but as a woman who has spent a lifetime putting the needs of others first, and refuses to accept even the slightest gesture of kindness towards her.
Seeing Ah Tao interact not only with Roger, but also with the other patients at the nursing home, or vendors she must deal with at the market or even her neighbours, shows her to be a genuinely pure and warm-hearted human being in a world where almost everyone else is shrouded in grey. When we look at Ah Tao it is easy to see the filmmakers mourning the death of simpler times and traditional family values as we enter a new millennium governed by more material needs and yearnings. Ip effortlessly conveys these characteristics, without opting for the easy ploy of a frail and saintly woman. Ah Tao has strength and humanity that we see too rarely in Cinema or real life.
But that is not to say that Andy Lau is completely overshadowed by his co-star. His performance is also one of subtle realisation, through the occasional look or gesture, of a grown man putting his life into a new perspective when faced with the imminent loss of a loved one he had never really stopped to appreciate before. Neither performance could be labelled as showy, but Lau in particular brings a lightness and naturalism to his role to the extent that you would be forgiven for believing that he is playing nothing more than a thinly veiled version of himself.
Beyond the performances, Ann Hui ensures that this gently played movie never becomes dull or repetitive, despite its fairly lengthy 118-minute runtime. As ever, her background in documentary filmmaking shines through and the script repeatedly gives us a peek at social issues - whether it be the ways charities and schools interact with nursing homes, different methods landlords deal with unwanted tenants, or simply the strange employer/servant dynamic that exists so prevalently in Hong Kong, yet has disappeared from almost everywhere else in the world. Nelson Yu's inventive cinematography and Law Wing-fai's score also keep the tone light and engaging throughout.
A SIMPLE LIFE emerges as every bit the success that it has been touted as since its premiere in Venice back in September, and although it is not without its flaws or superfluous elements, it accomplishes an honest depiction of a generation-broaching familial relationship between two people who are only just now understanding the depths of their co-dependence, despite living in such close proximity their entire lives. Hardly a match for the likes of Johnnie To or Dante Lam in the high-octane thrill stakes, there can be no denying that Ann Hui has delivered the best Hong Kong film of the year, and the only point left to debate is whether that year be 2011 or 2012. And at this point I'm more than happy to concede it might be both.
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