Director: Ann Hui
Starring: Deannie Yip, Andy Lau
Running time: 118 mins
Release: August 3rd
Simple can be a confusing word. It can gently denigrate someone’s intelligence, it can refer to the ease of a situation, or, as is the case here, it can be a much greater, more dignified adjective. It can speak to quiet, restrained dignity. Simple can still be great.
Ah Tao, translated as Sister Peach (Deannie Yip) has been a servant to the Leung family in Hong Kong for over 60 years, and when we first meet her she is serving Roger (Andy Lau), a young film producer who lives alone. His work tends to mean he’s away on business quite a lot. Upon returning from one of his trips he discovers that Ah Tao has had a stroke. While convalescing she decides she’s too infirm to continue working and wants to spend the rest of her days in a nursing home.
This film has a few points to make; mostly about growing old and the callous treatment of the elderly by some people. The latter gets the most attention, with the older people in the film treated as either commodities or a hindrance. Those treating them like commodities talk about how the nursing homes in Hong Kong will eventually outnumber the schools, as though they were discussing shifting a few digits around a board. Those hindered by their parents or relatives merely abandon them, and some of these scenes are genuinely unsettling, simply because everyone has a mother.
Much as the above points are made clear, that’s not what this film is about, not really. This is an incredibly slow burner, with Deannie Yip and Andy Lau gradually revealing more and more of Ah Tao and Roger’s wonderful, respect filled relationship. He has a birth mother, but this is clearly where his maternal upbringing came from. She dotes on him, and his quiet, almost taciturn adoration is only outshone by her quiet, refined dignity. She is deferential to a fault, except in matters of cooking, and this is one of two running jokes that help to lighten the tone of the film, which is honestly a little dour. Her withdrawn nature can make it hard to interpret what she’s thinking, but the great thing about A Simple Life is the way it draws you in until you feel as though you know this woman and know exactly why a successful movie producer would sacrifice so much to care for her. As both characters are so quiet, it could have been a dangerous move to base the movie around their relationship. However the experience of the leads shines through in their magnificent complimentary performances, and they communicate every emotion with the tiniest of inflections and looks.
Great as the central relationship is, two hours really is too long, and the latter stages of the film still feel rushed. The length is somewhat understandable given the desire to show as much about Ah Tao as they could without reverting to flashbacks, but cutting off a half an hour could really have made this one for the ages. As it stands, A Simple Life is just a very good character piece.