A Simple Life
Director: Ann Hui
HONG Kong has historically ranked among cinema’s most prolifically productive cities, churning out dozens of films each year across a wide range of genres. But with the notable exception of Wong Kar-Wai’s exquisite baubles, the ones that get to Europe – either for distribution or at film-festivals – tend to be crime-thrillers à la 2002′s Infernal Affairs (basis for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed). A glimpse into the “other” worlds of HK cinema is provided by A Simple Life (Tao jie), 25th film by 65-year-old director Ann Hui, but the first to land a run in British arthouses.
The London-trained Hui is has won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Director four times from eleven nominations – most recently for A Simple Life, which took Best Actress and Best Actor for Deanie Ip and Infernal Affairs’ Andy Lau, both household names in the ex-colony. This is the first big-screen role in a decade for 64-year-old Ip, a best-selling 1980s ‘Cantopop’ singer, and her comeback was crowned when she won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival last September – this international recognition crucial to A Simple Life‘s UK exposure.
It thus follows in the footsteps of two other films from east Asia focusing on an older female: Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry and Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, both Korean, whose stars Yun Jeong-hie and Kim Hye-ja were returning from hiatuses of 16 and 10 years respectively. Playing a character over a decade older than her actual age, Ip is suitably engaging and touching as Ah Tao, who as opening captions inform has spent 60 years looking after four generations of a wealthy Hong Kong family. But in retirement the flintily self-reliant Ah Tao suffers gradual then rapid physical deterioration – an implicit argument there for working until one drops.
Having raised film-business accountant Roger (Lau) – an unmarried fortysomething whose relationship with his biological mother has always been cursory at best – Ah Tao, her own offspring continents away, now finds herself being looked after by her former charge, who places her in a care-home and ensures that her final months are pleasant ones. As written by Susan Chan and Yam-iam Lee – the story reportedly based on the latter’s relationship with his own maid/nanny – A Simple Life is a straightforwardly commercial, at times almost TV-movie-like affair that combines a wide sentimental streak (piano-music underlines the poignancy) with touches of gentle humour that, along with the nuanced performances by the two leads, keeps things watchable over the (excessive) 118-minute running-time.
The kind of heartstring-tugging enterprise that will have audiences guiltily phoning up their own mothers – or mother-substitutes – as soon as the credits are rolling, it’s certainly not as striking or bold a treatment of old-age subjects as current Spanish animation Wrinkles (UK release-date TBC) and probably won’t reap the critical hosannas Poetry and Mother (charitably) obtained from the press. But there are certainly worse ways of avoiding the summer rains – and/or the Olympics – on a soggy afternoon.
17th July 2012
written for Tribune magazine