As its title suggests, Ann Hui’s new film focuses on the minuscule details taken for granted in the day-to-day, details that amount to much more when mortality and loss creep in. A Simple Life has at its centre an example of endless compassion and selflessness set against an unfortunate culture in which human life is all to often disregarded. Sitting just on the right side of sentimentality this is a film as impressive as it is emotional, as touching as it is steadfast in its depiction of the human condition.
A role-reversal forms the basis to the film as film producer Roger (Andy Lau) slowly becomes the sole carer to his lifelong maid; a woman who appears to have had a deeper emotional impact on him than his own parents, raising him as if her own. Deannie Yip turns in a tremendous performance as maid Ah Tao, a woman full of heart and mind up to the very end before her body completely fails her. Willingly spending her last days in a care home Ah Tao has a tremendous effect on everyone around her, the kind of person who fills the room with positivity and angelic kindness. There are many scenes of Ah Tao’s stay at the care home, ones which really drop the viewer in there with her as she copes with her claustrophobic setting and inmates, some more genuine than others, and witnessing her make the best of who and what she has around her.
It seems doubtful that Hui had any intentions of making any major sociopolitical statement with her film but she certainly paints – what can only be speculated vicariously – a rather candid representation of current China; Particularly in its treatment of the elderly by both state and family, though this is certainly a universal message. Roger’s family enjoy new arrivals in America while he remains childless with Ah Tao, a surrogate relationship explored and fully realised through the course of A Simple Life. Delicately handled is the troubled situation of childbearing here whether characters are willing or not.
Only when Ah Tao is stricken does her history with Roger unravel, with a consistent emphasis on undermining the gradual pieces of this past. The story is treated with tenderness, beautifully building due to the remarkable chemistry between the two major characters. Even as the film reaches what to most would be a melodramatic crescendo vainly reaching for superfluous levels, here we’re reminded that we’re watching an exercise in understatement. Though Ah Tao dedicated her life to others it’s her passing that brings simple memories of her cooking; her dedication and pride in finding the right ingredients, garlic for instance in an opening sequence in which she ‘s mocked by the greengrocers. This idiosyncrasy is found to be ridiculous but in the end, in the most charming way, defines her in the eyes of those who knew and loved her. Even as Roger says goodbye to the woman who has surely shaped him more than any other, he performs a most simple gesture that defies the grandiose acts of lamenting accustomed to such scenarios.
A Simple Life is a film that strikes straight to the core of the heart without overtly pushing the usual response buttons. Lau and Yip are both utterly convincing as two people who’ve known each other for decades, and for a film prominently about loss this is as full of life as anything your likely to see this year.
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