A SIMPLE LIFE (Tao jie) A-
Hong Kong China (118 mi) 2011 d: Ann Hui
One of the more thoughtful and lyrical films on the subject of aging, told without an ounce of condescension or pretense, where the director herself is about the exact same age as actress Deannie Ip, coming out of retirement, as she hasn’t made a movie in over a decade. Much like Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (2010), where Korean actress Yun Jung-hee performed in over 300 films in her career, coming out of retirement after sixteen years of living in Paris to be in nearly every scene of the film. While this doesn’t have the novelesque density of that movie, Ip dominates this film as well, though the writing is more quietly observant, paying attention to small details, where many sequences during the opening half hour are near wordless. In an innertitle following the opening credits, the audience quickly learns about Ah Tao (Ip), whose father died during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, while her mother gave her away to a wealthy Chinese family in Hong Kong, making her an orphan, where she served that same family as the household maid through 4 generations for the next 60 years, where all but one have moved away, either to Mainland China or to the United States, where the seventyish Ah Tao remains the servant of Roger Leung (Andy Lau), a middle aged bachelor otherwise living alone, a successful movie producer with a knack for reading financial records. The circular choreography of the elderly Ah Tao serving meals to the young Master is a sight to behold, as they needn’t utter a word to be on the same wavelength, where she serves the various courses of the meal exactly as he desires. Earlier we see her shopping in the market, asking the price, checking each item for freshness until finding the very best vegetables in the marketplace, which are the only ones she’ll use. Based on the real life of co-writer and producer Roger Lee, Ah Tao is a perfectionist in the kitchen, as is Roger, both extremely picky about what food they’ll eat.
The film takes a turn when Ah Tao suffers a stroke, losing muscle control on one side, relying heavily upon a cane to walk, announcing she’s retiring and intends to live out her years in an old folk’s home, insisting she pay her own way, nothing fancy, just something practical, as she refuses to be a burden. Roger offers to pay but complies with her wishes, where despite his busy schedule which requires extensive travel throughout Asia, he discovers he misses her, as she may be his best friend, as the two have shared their lives together, perhaps never realizing how important they are to one another. When he finds a place for her, it’s little more than a storefront operation, where it’s hard not to believe seniors are warehoused in the cheapest manner possible, fitting them into tiny cubicles with no ceilings, where it more likely resembles a prison, as at night it’s impossible not to hear the uncontrollable sleep noises of everyone else. The initial experience is something dreadful, but over time, she comes to know each and every one of the residents and the staff, including their interests and their eccentricities, making no judgments, offering them what help she can, as initially she’s one of the more able bodied, where she soon has the run of the place. All the other residents take an interest in her regular visits from Roger, calling him her godson (ironically mimicking their real life relationship), instead of her former employer, a mistake neither one ever attempts to correct, where he’s one of the few to make regular appearances. Soon his mother shows up to visit as well, each time offering respectful gestures and a host of presents, more than Ah Tao can handle, so when her visitors leave, all the other residents are salivating over the sumptuous food dishes left behind, where her visitors have a way of improving the group morale. One of the more delightfully amusing sequences is when Roger takes Ah Tao to a dress-up gala movie premiere, where cameo appearances by real life Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, tough guy actor Anthony Wong, martial arts producer Raymond Chow, and fight choreographer Sammo Hung only add to the enjoyment of the event, especially seeing Roger work a room filled with important dignitaries.
Born in Manchuria, Ann Hui came from mixed parents, a Chinese father and a Japanese mother, first working with acclaimed director King Hu, but her films have taken a special interest in the role of Asian women in contemporary society. With few embellishments, using a near documentary style, Hui establishes a precise rhythm of life which she sustains throughout, continually keeping her focus on Ah Tao’s daily routines and her generosity of spirit, where her relationship to the characters around her are allowed to evolve, developing into a clearer picture of their significance to one another over time. Deannie Ip is remarkably appealing, literally inhabiting the role with complete understatement, always deflecting to others, never seeking out attention, never seeing herself as any better or worse than anybody else, where she understands her unique role in being a part of so many lives, where she knows better than them what kind of kids they were or how difficult they may have been. The family always shared things with her they might not have expressed to their own parents as she was more accessible, less harsh or judgmental, and always supportive. She was the one who made sure they got to eat their favorite meals, prepared exactly as they preferred, and when others tried to emulate her, they’d forget a key ingredient or lacked her sense of grace, getting teased by others afterwards as they couldn’t live up to her high standards. But Andy Lau, one of Asia’s biggest stars, the distant romantic interest in Wong Kar-wai’s lushly impressionistic DAYS OF BEING WILD (1990) or the ever vigilant police inspector in the high powered action flick INTERNAL AFFAIRS (2002), tones down his performance here, becoming a highly intelligent, but somewhat loner character, who discovers after her stroke that Ah Tao, like him, both carefully guarding their secrets, may be the most directly plain speaking and honest person he knows, and probably had the most influence in his life, but never took any of the credit for it. An extremely low key and humble woman in a world full of people who more often think only of themselves, she’s singularly unique. For a director to paint such a complex and fully developed portrait through a series of what feels like very ordinary moments is no small task, but this is a meticulously drawn and deeply heartfelt testament to a woman who lost her family, yet ultimately made the lives of everyone around her feel greater appreciation.