On its surface, Ann Hui's A Simple Life (2011) plays like an Ozu-ish family drama, carefully observed and in touch with a basic shared humanity with the audience that isn't overcooked by the trappings of plot or melodrama. This, it accomplishes very, very well, and it's no wonder that the film has become the director's biggest hit and an award winner wherever it plays. It's one of the year's most pleasurable dramas. If I see a gentler, more humane film this year, I'll be shocked. If it only worked on that level, it would be amazing enough, but it plays a deeper game, too.
The story here follows the relationship between film producer Roger and his family's longtime nanny/caretaker, Ah Tao. Ah Tao came to Roger's family shortly after World War II, and has served them ever since. She's very much a family member rather than hired help and Roger relies on her for everything: food, housekeeping, style consultant, you name it. While Roger is in Beijing closing a deal for his new film, Ah Tao suffers a stroke. One her hospital bed, she tells him that she is retiring and that she wants to go to a home for the elderly. Roger finds a home run by one of his former stuntmen and soon Ah Tao is living there. She's the liveliest of the home's residents, and Roger's devotion to her is the envy of her fellow retirees. Meanwhile, Roger must do for himself, and he doesn't do such a good job of it. You never know what you have until it's gone, it seems.
A Simple Life is a character-driven film rather than a plot driven film, and its frequent moments of wry comedy are derived from a close observation of how its characters live. Ah Tao's delight in returning home for a visit, for instance, is punctured with a couple of funny moments when she realizes that Roger isn't dusting the house to her standards. In another scene, near the end of the film, a troupe of entertainers comes off stage after entertaining the folks living in the retirement home and the peppy facade drops to one of "it's the end of my shift, can't this ever end." It's a fleeting shot, wordless, but it speaks volumes of the characters involved and of changing attitudes toward aging in a youth-driven culture. Other fun comedy bits: Uncle Kim, one of the other residents, whose frequent begging for money is finally shown to be supporting a predilection for prostitutes, at which Ah Tao just shrugs; Roger's frequent run-ins with people who take him for a bike messenger/taxi driver once he's forced to pick his own clothes; the voyeuristic way the other residents watch Roger's visits. This is all fun to watch.
This isn't a comedy, per se, though, and there's a persistent ambient melancholy. The rest home isn't necessarily populated with movie characters so much as it's a warehouse of final extreme, more hospice than community. The shadow of Ah Tao's mortality, of the film's only logical conclusion, tinges the film's warm humor with a touch of the gallows. This seeps into the performances. Deannie Yip's Ah Tao is an unsentimental woman, warm but stern, and she's very much aware of her how her life is progressing. I like that she faces it without a lot of fuss. Roger is played by Yip's real-life godson, Andy Lau, who normally plays more glamourous roles. He's kind of a doofus in this film, but he matches Deannie Yip's natural warmth. Watching the two interact like old, old friends is the heart of the movie, and the pair has a natural chemistry. This has terrific performances.
The melancholy I felt while I was watching A Simple Life is a bit broader than I can easily chalk up to the relationship drama, though. There's a meta-cinematic dimension to this. Director Ann Hui apparently intended the film as her last before retiring herself, and there's a level of personal involvement evident in the ways she has chosen to accessorize the film. Hui, I should mention, is one of the major directors to come out of the Hong Kong New Wave. Her early films, either as a crew member for Tsui Hark or as a director unto herself are part of the explosion of color and action that defined Hong Kong film for a decade and a half in the 1980s and 90s. Hui was among the first to break away from the action film ghetto, though, and she's been making contemporary dramas for three decades now. In spite of that, she's still intimately connected with the history of Hong Kong film, and at least a part of A Simple Life seems like it's an elegy for a Hong Kong cinema that no longer exists. The fact that Roger is a film producer allows Hui to indulge in a deeply metacinematic summation of her own career. She connects herself to that career by casting numerous figures from the HK New Wave in small parts, whether it's Raymond Chow, Sammo Hung, and Tsui Hark as the filmmakers at Roger's Beijing meeting or Stanley Kwan at the premiere of Roger's new film. The stuntman who owns the retirement home is the ubiquitous Anthony Wong (late of Johnnie To's repertory company). There's a bitterness in Roger's assessment of his film--he thinks it's not any good, and there's a hint that he's trapped in the HK Action idiom of the 1980s, endlessly making new versions of The Three Kingdoms. The film's best line is Roger's, when he says, "I'm glad I'm not a big star." Of course, Andy Lau is a gigantic star, so the irony cuts deep.
My cinematic education came of age while the Hong Kong New Wave was unfolding. I have a deep well of affection--affection, hell; abject love--for those films and filmmakers. That explosion of creativity was the best fireworks show in cinema in its time and it's not lost on me that one of the signature images in A Simple Life is a vast fireworks display. Watching A Simple Life is bittersweet for reasons well beyond the drama itself because I get the feeling that it's an elegy for that cinematic idiom. I mean, yeah, there are still filmmakers who work in that idiom, but the great filmmakers have either moved past it (To, Wong Kar Wai, Ann Hui herself) or become creatively stagnant within it. What we are left with from that time are cometary remnants falling to earth and guttering out. This film mourns that, I think.
Note, this is the year's first film in my local art house's annual "Passport Series." The series presents recent foreign films and pairs them with a wine from the same part of the world that made the film. I'm a teetotaler, but I'll take the films...