Simple Life, A (2011)
Director: Ann Hui
Cast: Andy Lau, & Deannie Yip
Plot: The middle-aged son of a well-to-do family takes care of Ah Tao, the family's house servant for more than sixty years, after the latter suffers a stroke.
Awards: Won Best Actress (Venice).
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
A Simple Life did not win four awards at the Venice Film Festival 2011 for no reason. In competition for the Golden Lion, but missing out on the top prize, this new film by Ann Hui speaks to us in a genteel way; it is deeply affecting yet does not resort to theatrics to squeeze every emotion out of us.
Hui is no stranger to film festivals around the world. Her films such as Summer Snow (1995), and Ordinary Heroes (1999) have graced the Berlin International Film Festival, and her name has been quite ubiquitous at the Golden Horse Film Festival and Hong Kong Film Awards for the last three decades. Thus, it is not a surprise to see A Simple Life being well-received critically.
Like its title, the film is a simple and straightforward look at life. The life as we know it, and the life as lived by us. It may be a tale between two characters, Ah Tao (Deannie Yip) and Roger (Andy Lau), but it is a tale that closely embraces us with its heartfelt and universal themes.
This is a film for everyone who has lived, and who continues to struggle to live, for it is inspiring to see Ah Tao, a devoted house servant of over sixty years, taking care of Roger, the middle-aged son of a family who chooses to remain in Hong Kong to work in its film industry.
For much of the film after Ah Tao suffers a stroke, Hui situates it in an old folks' home. This is a bold move by the director, who makes effective use of such a place in two ways. First, through the eyes of Ah Tao, we feel her fears of a new environment, thus allowing us to be closer to her.
Second, through our own eyes, we see aged people who have lost their ability to take care of themselves, triggering not only our sympathy, but our thoughts of the future: would we become like them one day?
Hui challenges us visually by making us uncomfortable with such a setting, yet slowly but surely pulls us into the lives of these people. In a complete role reversal, Roger takes care of his lifelong servant, and in a couple of scenes, engages in lively banter over who had a crush over them when they were younger, and looking through old stuff in a box and reminiscing the past.
Hui is adept at balancing humor and tears in this bittersweet film, which offers poignancy and nostalgia in abundance, and an exceptionally strong performance by Yip, who is duly rewarded with Best Actress at Venice.
Besides being a competently crafted drama, A Simple Life is also a critique on the state of distant relationships among family members as caused, but not limited to, migration and the lack of communication in an increasingly urbanized and borderless society.
It also probes the question: is the unconditional love given by a person not related by blood more valuable than one who is blood-related? The ending wraps up the film with a kind of melancholic simplicity that reminds that of Edward Yang's Yi Yi (2000). Only that this is wordless.
Verdict: Amid the laughter and tears lies a film that subtly calls to attention the fragility of human relationships, no matter how close they are, in a modern, urban society.
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