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February 21, 2013

A Simple Life

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Tao jie
Ann Hui - 2011
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

A Simple Life is the work of a filmmaker so confident in her actors and material that she allows herself to step back as an almost casual observer. I wouldn't call the filmmaking austere, as much as stripped down to the essentials. It could well be that A Simple Life gained another Best Director win, her fourth, for Ann Hui because she eschewed anything that smacked of obvious style or technique. The deceptively casual cinematography is by Nelson Yu, his third collaboration with Hui.

Although the story is from producer Roger Lee's own life, and his relationship with his long-time family maid, elements are similar to an earlier Hui film, Summer Snow from 1995, in which a woman cares for her father-in-law, suffering from Alzheimer's disease. While Ann Hui did not originate the film, and was brought in by producer-star Andy Lau, it still can be considered a personal film for its thematic concerns. In an additional case of serendipity, A Simple Life and Summer Snow both won the Hong Kong Film Awards for film, director, actor and actress.

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The story goes against the grain of what seems to be demanded nowadays. A family maid gets a stroke, spends the rest of her days in a nursing home, and is looked after by the movie producer who she helped raise. What is observed is that in the beginning, the producer, Roger, is rather oblivious while Ah Tao prepares and serves his meal and tends to his apartment. Several minutes are devoted to shots of a traditional dinner being prepared with the camera focused on the large frying pan. A scene near the end, which a Hollywood director would probably overlay with a loud, schmalzy score, is played out in silence with Roger, tending to Ah Tao for the last time, straightens out the socks she wear to stay warm.

Which is not to say that A Simple Life is devoid of humor. There is the banter between Roger and Ah Tao, teasing each other about being too picky to have gotten married. There's also a production meeting with Tsui Hark playing himself, yelling at Roger, "I was making movies when you were in short pants!". Roger takes Ah Tao to the premiere of his latest production, sparked by cameo appearances by producer Raymond Chow, director Stanley Kwan, and actress Angela Baby, among others. There is also a running joke about Roger's every day outfit of a blue jacket and shirt which cause him to be confused with an air-conditioner repairman and a cabbie.

One of the more interesting choices is that most of the film takes place in the Sham Shui Po district of Hong Kong. It's an area of old apartment buildings with aging air conditioners sticking out of the walls, and inexpensive restaurants. Hui's love of Hong Kong and interest in the more marginalized residents was explored in two previous films taking place in relatively remote Tin Shui Wai district, most notably in The Way We Are.

After an absence from acting for almost ten years, Deanie Ip's performance as Ah Tao brought several awards, beginning with Best Actress at Venice, in September 2011. After a career of primarily comic supporting roles, Ip played a woman about ten years older than her real age, who tries to assert as much independence as possible in the face of failing health. This is the kind of role that a lesser actor would play for easy sentimentality or cheap laughs. A Simple Life is about difficult choices, compromises, and loving someone as much for their faults, rather than in spite of them.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 21, 2013 08:30 AM