DIR: Ann Hui • WRI: Susan Chan, Yan-lam Lee • PRO: Pui-wah Chan, Ann Hui, Yan-lam Lee, • DOP: Nelson Yu Lik-wai • ED: Nicholas C. Smith • DES: Albert Poon • CAST: Andy Lau, Deannie Yip
Andy Lau may be best known around these parts for his roles in action films (House of Flying Daggers) and thrillers (Infernal Affairs), but in his homeland he’s a megastar and performer of surprising versatility. We can’t forget his roles in several classic Wong Kar-wai joints, after all. After last being seen on Western shores fighting a pack of deer (you read that correctly) in Detective Dee, he’s back on Irish screens in emotional, understated drama A Simple Life: a film that will hopefully provide a wider audience with the opportunity to catch a glimpse of his filmography’s range.
Directed by veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui, the story follows Ah Tao (the excellent Deannie Yip), who has been a long time housekeeper for the Leung family. With Roger (Lau) the only family member left in Hong Kong, the elderly Ah Tao now spends most of her days preparing extravagant meals for her remaining master. After suffering a stroke, she makes it clear that she wants to be put into a nursing home. Roger makes it his duty to fulfil that wish, and is determined to lavish her with the care & attention that she has provided him with since he was child. As her health declines, we observe the two character’s interactions during Ah Tao’s time in the home.
This is a subtlety observed drama that only irregularly feels lazily sentimental (a twinkly, over-emotive but – thankfully – infrequently utilised musical score is a main culprit in that regard). It’s an intelligent character study, with the emotional bond between Roger and Ah Tao delicately realised and uninterrupted by contrivances. Indeed, several of the film’s most dramatic events occur off-screen, with some sequences taking place after considerable chronological jumps. Hui is instead brave enough to allow the affecting friendship speak for itself, with an unobtrusive visual style keeping the focus squarely on the characters.
This does have a negative side-effect in that the film can seem a little on the slight side, with a handful of underdeveloped subplots. The scene where Ah Tao arrives at her new dwellings – a rundown, soulless nursing home in the middle of a busy Hong Kong street – is rather grim, and there’s the brief suggestion that this is going to be a more cynical critique of over-population problems and mistreatment of the elderly. There’s an equally depressing scene where the home’s residents are visited by a bunch of ‘performers’ who treat their audience with disdain and apathy. This cynicism seems underdeveloped in a film that is otherwise an unashamed celebration of friendship, family, nostalgia and community spirit.
Largely down to the strong performances of Yip and Lau (in that order), however, the film manages to be poignant and engaging despite the residual hints of missed opportunity. As a crowd-pleasing and emotionally honest character study, A Simple Life succeeds without cheap trickery. If nothing else, it’s great to see high-quality Hong Kong cinema in Irish theatres that isn’t a genre pic. It’s not quite the best the region has to offer, but Hui’s film wears its heart on its sleeve, and definitely doesn’t lack emotional force.
A Simple Life is released on 3rd August 2012