A Simple Life (Tao Jie) (Ann Hui – Hong Kong) 118 minutes
A Simple Life is a simple film – no pretensions, conventional enough in its portrayal of a relationship between two people who have known each other all their lives. Yet it manages to be magical in its own modest way. Ah Tao (played by Deannie Yip) is a septuagenarian housekeeper, who has been working for the same Hong Kong family for decades since she was orphaned during the Japanese occupation of mainland China. The rest of the family having decamped to North America, Roger (Andy Lau), a single successful film producer in his forties, is the only member left in her charge. When Ah Tao falls victim to a stroke, Roger is forced to find a nursing home for her, where she struggles initially but then adapts.
The nursing home, owned by a slightly dubious former stuntman, is short on comfort, coldly functional and one of the underpaid nurses even offers to moonlight as a replacement housekeeper for Roger. You might expect the film to turn into a crusading indictment of conditions in Hong Kong’s old-folk’s homes, but the criticism remains implicit. The relationship between Ah Tao and Roger also grows paradoxically stronger as he attends to her more and visits her daily, taking her out to lunch at every possible opportunity, to escape the grimness of the institutional catering. (East Asian films always make me incredibly hungry, focusing as much as they do on food and mealtimes. In American and European movies, food is just a detail, meals just a backdrop for diegetic action; in Asia, both are a vital part of the texture of a film.)
There is only one way the film is going but A Simple Life is a wonderfully full and intelligent melodrama nonetheless. The relationship between two people, which until recently has been strained by class-bound etiquette and decorum, grows, as if they are living on borrowed time. Just as in Wong Kar-Wai’s recent The Grandmaster, where Gong Er (played by Zhang Ziyi) forsakes her kung-fu expertise and declines to pass it on, Ah Tao’s knowledge and prowess in cooking, caring and keeping house, amassed over decades, is to die out without being transmitted. In one sequence she interviews prospective replacements to take over as housekeeper and finds none of them will be able to cook like her.
One of A Simple Life’s most remarkable qualities is how it portrays love so convincingly. Love has, for as long as films have been made, been one of the great vectors of narrative cinema; it has mostly been sign-posted in the most superficial ways though – walks in the park, scenes of intimacy, weddings. Love in the movies is also the domain of the young and the sexually intimate. Much of the time, we have to take a film’s depiction of it on faith. Here we see the love build up in subtle increments and we share in a depiction of an emotional bond that is usually incredibly hard to dramatise. There is one particularly moving scene where Roger and some old school friends call Ah Tao up on the spur of the moment and tease her, reminiscing about old times. It thrills the elderly lady, as she plays mah jong with her fellow residents. It is moments like this, discreetly worked into a drama where the stress of illness, death and loss figure prominently, that make A Simple Life such a brilliantly affecting film. Based on the real-life experience of Hong Kong producer Roger Lee, the film has been a critical and commercial success in Hong Kong, which has prompted veteran director Ann Hui to postpone her retirement. A weepie of the highest quality.