Every year, you’re guaranteed at least one film that takes you completely into the characters depicted on-screen. In 2010, it was Mike Leigh’s Another Year; in 2011, it was Las Acacias; and in 2012; it’s Hong Kong movie, A Simple Life.
The ultimate irony lies in the title. Life is anything but simple, and Ann Hui’s charming, compassionate film unspools this simple home-truth in a series of quiet, naturalistic vignettes.
The first demonstration of this comes with an apparently straightforward depiection of the master-servant relationship. Ageing nanny Ah Tao (Deannie Yip) has served her employer Roger (Andy Lau) his dinner. What appears to be an aloof, professional arrangement dictated by the terms of Ah Tao’s employment is revealed to be anything but in the next scene, when the two reveal an affectionate banter that’s clearly been built up over several years.
It turns out Ah Tao has served Roger’s family for several decades and feels a great deal of maternal warmth towards him. However, when she suffers a stroke, she decides it’s time to move into a nursing home, prompting a great deal of compassionate concern on part of career-oriented Roger, who works in the film industry.
The acting is truly remarkable; one cannot see the joins between the actors and the characters they’re playing. Yip won Best Actress at the 2011 Venice Film Festival and the award was much-deserved. Her clear dismay on moving into a nursing home that is more hospital than bucolic retreat is award-worthy on its own; she’s incredibly convincing and kind-hearted as an altruistic woman forced to confront the ignominy of old age. Equally poignant is Lau as the workaholic who is forced to re-assess his priorities.
Thankfully, the script’s treatment of both characters is never as glib or crass as described above. A Simple Life is one of those, ‘turn the camera on and find magic in reality’ movies: Hui’s direction is observant and unfussy, drawing strength from ordinary surroundings, and finding the emotional nuances beneath. Virtually every shot finds people in recognisable locations such as apartment blocks and rooms; there’s no sense that any given situation is being dressed up or having been worked out by the filmmakers beforehand.
The movie never loses its ability to surprise us on an intimate level. At one stage, Ah Tao talks to a young woman and her mother, assuming that the former has come to visit the latter. It then turns out that the daughter is the one in the nursing home, and the mother has come to visit her. The crisp, matter-of-factness of Hui’s direction, combined with the effortless performances, proves that ordinary life is just as remarkable as full-blown alien worlds. Life may not be simple but it is to be savoured.