Directed by Ann Hui and written by Susan Chan and Yan-lam Lee, who also produced the film, this film was Hong Kong’s official entry for the 2012 Oscars. The title in English is A Simple Life.
The story is similarly quite basic – Deannie Yip , a fine veteran Hong Kong actress, plays Ah Tao, who has been in the service of one family for about sixty years (and four generations) as a nanny/maid/cook/housekeeper. While most of the family has emigrated to the West, the oldest son Roger, played by Andy Lau, has remained in HK. Roger is a very successful film producer. He’s always on the run scouting out locations in China, or taking meetings with directors and actors, he is away from home about as often as he’s in town.
Ah Tao handles the laundry, keeps the apartment clean, cooks, and shops for Roger. She’s well-known in the neighborhood, and the merchants play tricks on her but with affection. We understand that she cares for Roger’s well-being when she chastises him for eating ox-tongue:
You want more angioplasty? Forget about it.
But Ah Tao maintains her place. She wouldn’t think of sitting at the dining table with Roger, or eating with him in the living room while he’s watching tv. She will eat standing up in the kitchen instead. They work well together – when she hears Roger getting ready to leave for a trip, she makes her inquiry simply.
Ah Tao: How long this time?
Roger: Just two days
Roger in his way appreciates all Ah Tao does for him. But Ah Tao suffers a stroke. She becomes impaired, and in the aftermath walks with a quad-cane. But her mind is sharp. She tells Roger that she doesn’t want to be a burden for him. She will live in a nursing home in the area. And pay for it herself.
Of course Roger knows she needs the care but he says that he’ll arrange the nursing home AND pay for it.
That’s about all you’ll need for the set up. It is a simple story, and the beauty of the film is not the story itself. We are all familiar with people getting on in years, and then needing care. No, the real artistry of this film is how they tell the story.
Hong Kong and Chinese dramas reveal themselves slowly. It seems as if there’s all the time in the world. You’ll find yourself thinking – they don’t seem to be any rush to start this story, only to then find yourself asking, Who is this guy that travels to backwoods China? In the rail station he seems to be the only passenger. And who is this woman, who shops and bargains so hard as if she must account for every last penny?
But then we do find out who these people are. Though the fact is that the story can be described as a caring family maid has a stroke, and the eldest son of the family she’s attended to for so many years (Ah Tao has known Roger since she was his nanny and he was but a small boy) so it is no surprise when he steps up and does the right thing – it may not seem to be all that interesting at the outset. However it is a sure thing, that once you start, you will become very interested.
Watch for subtleties by the writer and the director, and you’ll see artistry built around ‘show not tell’. If you watch you will see the nuanced and quiet performances by the lead actors that are both moving and exciting. The film’s auteurs have taken a page out of the life of every family – whether it be Hong Kong, or elsewhere – and breathed life into it.
No, it is not the least bit dreary, nor is it dull. Just so you know, there are some light moments – the vegetable market manager turns down the temperature in his cold room to get a rise out of Ah Tao. There’s a cat. In the nursing home we have a pair of old gents who ended up with the other’s false teeth. Roger is mistaken for an air-conditioning repairman when he comes to visit his bank. One more old-timer goes around borrowing money from both Roger and Ah Tao ($300 HK a pop – about $25 US). You won’t believe what he uses the money for. As I said small moments all done with a light touch.
Although you may not be thinking about your own future at the moment, director Ann Hui has made a gem of a film that will make you at least consider the future. Everyone one of us will change over the years, and each of us will adapt as necessary.
A film that can instill that kind of thinking in the audience is certainly worthwhile. For those of you who are knowledgeable about HK films, and watch them often, you will see two well known HK actors, Anthony Wong and Chapman To, in the film in small parts. Wong owns the nursing home, and Chapman plays a dentist. They could have hired anyone for these roles. The fact they did agree to work on this film is a major tribute to director Ann Hui. Also on hand, in equally small parts are Sammo Hung, who once had his own TV series in the USA called Martial Law (1998-2000) – he played a LA Cop from Shanghai, and the internationally known film director and producer Hark Tsui.
I’m going to rate this film at four point zero and offer a recommendation. It’s very realistic, very endearing, and very well done.