Think of Hong Kong cinema and your mind might automatically wander to martial arts films or crime thrillers. But, as you can infer from this film’s title, A Simple Life is not one of them. It has had commercial success and critical acclaim that was unexpected by all involved in the film, many of whom are veterans of the Hong Kong film industry. It’s the fifth highest-grossing film in Hong Kong this year so far (The Avengers and Men In Black 3 hold the top spots). Considering that the Hong Kong film industry has been struggling mightily against Hollywood blockbusters since the mid-1990s, the fact that this film has been a surprise hit is heartening for the regional business. A Simple Life is a love letter to a decidedly unglamorous and humble Hong Kong.
Ann Hui’s gentle film is led by Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), an ageing domestic servant (‘amah’ in Chinese) who tends to the needs of bachelor Roger Leung (Andy Lau), the only member of his family left in Hong Kong. Ah Tao was with the Leung family since she was orphaned by WWII and served four generations of the family, so the Leungs are essentially her family. The film focuses on Ah Tao’s relationship to Roger and how it evolves during her last years, rendering a tender portrait of the reality of becoming elderly.
There’s authenticity embedded in the film that helps it resonate – it’s based on real characters and Deanie Ip is actually Andy Tau’s godmother. It also doesn’t hurt that 23 years ago, Ip and Lau co-starred as mother and son in a film called The Truth. There’s a natural ease and familiarity to their understated onscreen interactions that is rare to see.
A Simple Life opens with Ah Tao limping up stairs with heavy groceries and then serving Roger a meal without any thanks or recognition offered. For the majority of us who didn’t grow up with in-house servants, it’s a bit off-putting. Roger hardly looks like a grown-up; he moves and dresses like a university student, despite being a big shot in the film industry. In contrast, Ah Tao acts with a strong sense of purpose and a professional dignity about her responsibilities; she never asks for anything and never complains. Deanie Ip is only 64, but her natural physical mannerisms thoroughly convince you that her body is starting to fail.
Ah Tao has a stroke, and thus retires and asks to be put in a nursing home so she isn’t a burden on Roger. Their familiar routines with each other are put in reverse; Roger goes from being cared for to having to take care of both himself and Ah Tao. Through Ah Tao, we get the nursing home experience without the smells, as she transitions from independent living to what is essentially a waiting game. The nursing home is populated with well-nuanced characters who make it clear that Ah Tao is one of the fortunate ones. It’s lucky for us in the audience, as hers is a best-case scenario of a stage of life most would rather not think about.
It may all sound depressing, but watching it doesn’t feel that way. Each character is cheerful and entertaining, complete with little idiosyncrasies, and the cinematography is crisp and naturalistic. Everything in the film serves character development in a humanist, understated manner, quite like Ah Tao herself. Deanie Ip’s performance (which deservedly won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at Venice, the first for a Hong Kong woman) commands respect and holds your sympathies. The last third does drag slightly, mainly because you know what’s coming; but this reflects reality, since the waiting is quietly agonising. The film gently reminds us of our mortality and our responsibilities to our family, in a non-preachy way. If you feel like a break from grandiose blockbuster films this summer, give this one a try.
A Simple Life opens in selected UK cinemas nationwide on 3 August. Contributor Cathy Landicho can followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.