A true domestic partnership
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, Apr. 20, 2012
A tender tale of role reversal, "A Simple Life" is based on Hong Kong movie producer Roger Lee's final months with the woman who had been a family servant for 60 years. As co-scripted by Lee, the movie is often poignant but leavened with humor.
At first, Roger (Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau) seems to have little interest in Ah Tao (Deanie Ip, who won the Venice Film Festival's best actress award for this performance). Roger travels often for his work, usually to other parts of China. He returns to a small apartment that he expects to be tidy and meals he expects to be tasty. Ah Tao meets both requirements.
Roger inherited Ah Tao, who began working for his family before he was born, after the rest of the clan relocated to San Francisco. But there's more to their connection than that. When Roger asks for food that's too fatty or salty, Ah Tao reminds him about his heart attack. She nursed Roger through his recovery from angioplasty.
Then Ah Tao has a stroke and insists on moving to an assisted-care facility. The humble woman doesn't want to be a bother, so Roger agrees. But the busy film producer becomes an attentive visitor, bringing gifts and frequently taking Ah Tao out for meals. The other residents assume that Roger is not Ah Tao's former employer but her godson; he faithfully assumes the part.
"A Simple Life" was directed by Ann Hui, Hong Kong's best-known female director and one of its few filmmakers who doesn't do a lot of kung fu and gangster flicks. She takes a low-key approach, letting scenes develop at a natural pace. Her principal visual flourish is to frame Ah Tao often through narrow openings, suggesting not only the limited confines of nursing-home life but also the tightening grip of death.
Fans of Hong Kong action movies might be surprised by this gentle drama, but they're also most likely to get some of the humor. Hui counters the tale's solemnity with movie-biz in-jokes and cameos; director Tsui Hark, tough-guy actor Anthony Wong and Jackie Chan fight choreographer Sammo Hung all appear.
There are other gags that don't require insider knowledge, including the way the casually dressed Roger is regularly mistaken for a man with a less glamorous profession. Such moments draw smiles rather than guffaws, but that's appropriate for a film that aspires to evoke simple-hearted feelings of love, loss and duty.
Contains mild sexual references and one feigned threat. In Cantonese, Mandarin and English with English subtitles.