I finally watched ‘A Simple Life’. It took me a while. I have missed recent Ann Hui movies. They have become a little too art house. But this movie is quite different. The re-teaming of Andy Lau and Deanie Ip. Friends told me the premise reminded them of me. A filmmaker taking care of an elderly person. I watched it last weekend with some friends. Suddenly, a few days before, I was looking forward to it. The awards. The accolades. But mostly, to be reacquainted with Ann Hui and Deanie Ip. And to see how Andy Lau handled such a film.
There is a deliberate matter of factness in the way Andy portrayed this filmmaker, based on the true story of Hong Kong producer Roger Lee and his family maid. His character is not unduly emotional, just caring and thoughtful. There is a light footedness in the way he moved through the whole film. The subject matter is certainly not a walk in the park. It is admittedly heavy, yet there is a lightness. And this lightness is defined by the way Andy Lau played his role. The role reversal of caregiving. There comes a time when the person whose entire life is caring for others, needs caring.
Deanie Ip is Tao Jie, the aging amah. If you are familiar with her, you would not be surprised she is getting so much attention for this role. I watched the Mandarin version. The film would be a lot more authentic in Cantonese. Especially for Deanie, whose voice is as captivating as the characters she plays. She used to be singer. Her low voice has always been an integral part of her personas. Tao Jie should be no exception. These maids who become a part of the families they work for, is very much a part of the Hong Kong story. And the Hong Kong story, if told, is told in Cantonese.
Ann Hui brings her understanding of characters, her observations of life in Hong Kong, and her views of aging to a level where her docudrama style is deceptively clinical. Her Tao Jie is simply and fiercely unsentimental. She faces life with methodical courage and accepts her place in life with practical contentment. Yet she is no wilting lily, just someone who excels as a maid. It may be her culinary skills, her attention to details, and her sense of devotion that earned her a place in the hearts of the Lee household. But underlying all these attributes of a live-in maid, are her undying loyalty and her tireless empathy.
I see something buddhist in Ann Hui’s telling of this story. She has no time for anyone who is no good. Every character is good is some ways. The angry daughter who chides her mother, the philanderer who lies and borrows money, the people who need to keep the old folks home viable, and the younger patient whose kidneys fail her – they are basically good. Ann Hui is almost saying – if you are a decent person, when you grow old and need care, a caregiver will appear. If you were a maid, your caregiver could be your master.
I had concerns this film may be a little too real. To a point where cinematic moments are short-changed for the raw and mundane. I am not totally wrong. But I leave the cinema rethinking about caring for someone I love, about aging, about how heavy subjects can be light. Ann Hui has evolved as a filmmaker. She has blurred the line between real and reel life in ways that are thought-provoking. ‘A Simple Life’ has a surprising tenderness and engaging sensitivity that layers a hard life with warm humanity. While I write this, Ann Hui is being honoured tonight for her life’s work at the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong.