Cinema Review: A Simple Life

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.

Stephen McNeice

118 mins

A Simple Life  is released on 3rd August 2012

A Simple Life – Official Website


DVD Review: Shaolin

shaolin_ DVD

You’ve seen Shaolin before. Trust me, you have.

So it’s actually to this redemptive tale’s eternal credit that it feels fresh, exciting and poignant. Chronicling the fall from grace of a hardened warlord to his eventual/inevitable embrace of spiritual ideology, Shaolin echoes the underlying salvation narrative of titles such as Fearless and The Last Samurai.

But Shaolin’s got a whole lot more going for it than that!

Inspired more by the cultural impact of Jet Li’s 1982 debut The Shaolin Temple than anything else, Shaolin is an allegory for eastern physicality on western ballistics, Asian spirituality and European militarism. Shaolin actually bridges a socio-cultural divide in terms of action, plotting and relevance.

But you’ll probably be having too much fun to notice.

Shaolin is peppered with tastes and teasers of exquisitely choreographed action by Cory Yuen (Transporter, Kiss of the Dragon, X-Men.) The stunt-work should have you rewinding regularly, while the practical and particle effects will see you retrieving your jaw from the floor with regularity.

Specifically the assault upon the Shaolin Temple; I’ve no idea why cascading debris is so pretty, but it is.

And although leading man Andy Lau isn’t a natural martial artist, he composes himself well during the copious action scenes. Meanwhile the presence of veterans likes Wu Jing, Xiong Xinxin and, of course, Jackie Chan elevates the standard far beyond anything you’ll see in cinemas this summer.

In terms of sheer visceral thrill, Shaolin schools Hollywood in how precisely to bust blocks!

Yuen has distilled a signature style which tastes equal parts east and west. Examples include a breathless foot to horse to carriage chase scene, and a staggering half hour climax splicing explosions, bone crunching stunts, subtle wirework, modest CG enhancement and kinetic brawls.

Not that it’s all spinning heel kicks and exploding monasteries. As expected, Andy Lau lights up the screen and is likely to prove a magnet for your affections, and maybe even a few tears. But it’s the effort from the support cast that rounds this feature so well. From Nicholas Tse’s always lurking menace to Jackie’s criminally underrated conviction, save for a few moments of clichéd symbolism, each and every scene has a performance to draw you in.

Shaolin isn’t flawless by any stretch. But save for a few choppy takes, a (justifiable) lull in the middle act and some inexplicably woeful English language ‘actors’, director Benny Chan has crafted his best effort to date.

And he did this by keeping his plot concise, his cast honest, his crew diligent, and his money-shots, well, bountiful.

Combined with last month’s DVD release of Detective Dee, Chinese Cinema once again cements itself as the premier source of action-packed adventure flicks. And while Detective Dee brimmed with imagination and intelligence, Shaolin overflows with sentiment and principle.

If you’ve access to a telly, a DVD player and a pair of eyeballs, you really should be watching Shaolin. As in, right now!

Jack McGlynn

Shaolin is released on DVD & Blu-Ray on 12th September

Format: Anamorphic, Dolby, PAL, Widescreen
Language English, Mandarin Chinese
Region: Region 2 (This DVD may not be viewable outside Europe. Read more about DVD formats.)
Number of discs: 2
Classification: 15
Studio: Cine-Asia
DVD Release Date: 12th Sep 2011