Suffused with the gentle, unforced humanity viewers have come to expect from Hong Kong helmer Ann Hui, “A Simple Life” is a tender ode to the elderly, their caregivers and the mutual generosity of spirit that makes their limited time together worthwhile. Fittingly for a film about the challenges and rewards of looking after the sick and aging, this well-observed, pleasantly meandering dramedy requires a measure of patience, and some judicious trimming would improve its chances for export. But the moving, never tearjerking lead performances by Andy Lau and Deanie Ip rep strong selling points for Hui’s following at home and abroad.
The universal subject of growing old has here inspired a film of near-universal appeal, though its accessible approach to slice-of-life material might hinder its fest progress after high-profile bows at Venice and Toronto. Pic does hold special interest for Asian film buffs; a fact-based account drawn from the life of Hong Kong producer Roger Lee (who co-wrote the script with Susan Chan), it’s dotted with cameos by such industry names as Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung. One particularly sly scene features a director in shades who could only be a stand-in for Wong Kar Wai.
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The Chinese cinema in-jokes, however, are merely peripheral to the film’s straightforward story of a man and his amah, one of an honored breed of Chinese domestic helpers known for their lifelong service to a single family. Chun-tao (Ip), whom everyone calls Ah Tao, has spent 60 years working for several generations of the Leung family. When Ah Tao suffers a stroke, she quits her job and asks her sole current master, Roger (Lau), to help her move into a nursing home.
As Ah Tao adjusts to a new environment and routine, Roger, a bachelor and film producer, finds himself taking on an active role in looking after her. One of the most charming and instructive aspects of “A Simple Life” is how little he resents this arrangement, matter-of-factly upholding the local tradition of caring for one’s elders. He doesn’t want to neglect Ah Tao, and she doesn’t want to impose on him — an arrangement that works out in the best possible way, as Roger realizes how much he needs her still.
Shifting easily from the broad comedy of Ah Tao’s interactions with a randy, overly gregarious friend to the sobering near-everyday reality of death and deteriorating health in the nursing home, the loose-limbed film has a baggy structure characteristic of Hui’s wide-ranging ensemblers. Yet the story’s essential regard for individual dignity makes even the supporting characters a pleasure to spend time with, particularly Ms. Choi (Qin Hailu), the home’s hard-working, emotionally guarded director.
Ip and Lau, who have been cast as mother and son in any number of films and TV programs, beautifully embody the slightly different dynamic of maid and master here. Whether teasing each other about their respective romantic prospects or attending the premiere of Roger’s latest film, the two thesps are enormously endearing to watch together. Ip, for her part, inhabits Ah Tao with unflappable dignity as well as a delightfully feisty attitude as she faces her twilight years head-on.
The final scenes scrupulously avoid milking the situation for pathos, and are played with the warm, forthright emotion typical of the story as a whole. Similarly, the film neither sugarcoats nor uglifies the experience of assisted living, as production designer Albert Poon presents the nursing home as a no-frills place that serves its purpose. Sole craft element that pushes a bit too hard is Law Wing-fai’s score.
Yu Lik-wai’s crisp HD lensing looks good enough on the bigscreen to combat any charges that Hui is churning out Lifetime-level material. As usual, the helmer lavishes loving attention on the sights and sounds of food being prepared, to mouth-watering effect; while the film, at 117 minutes, could be shorter, none of these shots should be excised.