A Simple Life

A Simple Life

*****

Reviewed by: Sophie Monks Kaufman

In Hong Kong Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), a maid, tends to Roger (Andy Lau), a man whose family she has nurtured for decades. Their relationship is undemonstrative, words and gestures used to convey only the essential. Then Ah Tao has a stroke and their relationship is turned on its head. She enters a nursing home and Roger becomes her primary source of non-institutional care. So begins a spine-tingling tale that addresses how life, love and death co-exist in simple but expert cinematic language.

It’s a dingy filmscape with browns evoking the worst that the Seventies had to offer. The nursing home is a rabbit warren of clinical bedrooms exposing a world where a strict-per-head budget takes presidence over verve and positivity. Yet rather than drag you down, although it does this first, the no-frills physical world highlights the strange reaction of the central character to this environment. She is content. In a place that is basically One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for the Old and Infirm she can relax. Say what?!

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Why doesn’t she need more? What does she know that we don’t? Director Ann Hui understands that placing Ah Tao in a humdrum environment wraps the riddle of her personality in more intrigue than opulent surroundings could ever achieve. It is this personality – stubborn but loving, laconic but joyful - that keeps you gripped as the film slowly plays its hand.

The brilliance of A Simple Life comes from the quiet ambition of its scope. This is a story about a woman adjusting to the constraints of old age and illness while also preparing for the death she believes is around the corner. It’s also about the man who steps up and instinctively gives the woman the companionship she needs to not be afraid at this potentially terrifying point in her life. The pair drum up a pale fire between them which meant that for a lot of the film there was something in my eye. I’d get it out but then those two would get all stoically caring again meaning it was back.

Hui tells their story with the help of Susan Chan’s stripped-down script and sophisticated structure. Each scene is a beautifully crafted building block in a grand whole. It is important to know this when sitting through the early part of the film, which, in the moment feels like it drags, but in retrospect was what it needed to be.

Ip’s performance is a literally a revelation. Her character is a grower not a shower and it’s impossible to separate her physicality from her performance. In early scenes she is slow and sour-faced, ready for the knacker’s yard, but when she smiles it’s with the unadulterated pleasure of a child.

And there are occasions to smile, Ah Tao and Roger have the sort of conversational humour born out of comfort in each other’s presence. When before an operation a priest prepares Ah Tao with a somber speech invoking the phrase “a time for living and a time for dying”, she adds, “A time for heart surgery and a time for bile dissection”. Roger cracks up. Moments like this, plus a support cast that includes a hooker-loving old goat provide light-hearted asides.

I found it very hard to detatch myself from A Simple Life and write a proper review because it washed me up in an extremely emotional place. But it is more than a successful tear-jerker. A Simple Life is a two-hour slice of profound wisdom that gently leads you down to a deep place then whispers helpful truths in your ear. If you’ve ever known anyone who got ill or old or suspect you may be headed that way yourself then A Simple Life will provide an unsentimental slice of solace in the form of a masterfully told story. Essential viewing.

Reviewed on: 03 Aug 2012
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An existential drama about how two people’s relationship survives after one of them has a stroke.
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Director: Ann Hui

Writer: Susan Chan, Yan-Lam Lee

Starring: Deanie Ip, Andy Lau, Wang Fuli, Qin Hailu, Anthony Wong

Year: 2011

Runtime: 117 minutes

Country: Hong Kong

Festivals:

London 2011

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