A Simple Life 桃姐
2011, colour, 1.85:1, 119 mins
Directed by Ann Hui (許鞍華)
By Derek Elley
Thu, 08 September 2011, 22:55 PM (HKT)
Deanie Ip and Andy Lau make memorable chemistry in the moving story of an amah's final lap. Festivals, plus niche theatrical potential.
Hong Kong, the present day. Chung Chun-tao (Deanie Ip) has worked for the Leung family as an amah for 60 years. She now looks after Roger Leung (Andy Lau), who came back to Hong Kong in his 30s and is the only member of the family still based there. A film producer, Roger is currently working between Hong Kong and Beijing on a large-scale costume drama, Three Kingdoms, to be shot in China and involving two Hong Kong film-makers (Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark) and a Mainland financier (Yu Dong). Returning from one trip, Roger finds Tao has had a stroke; later, in hospital, she tells him she'd like to finally give up work and be put in an old people's home. Roger finds one in Sham Shui Po, in northwestern Kowloon, supervised by the business-like but kindly Miss Choi (Qin Hailu). Small and crowded, it's initially a depressing experience but Tao slowly gets to adjust and to know her fellow inhabitants, including the lively Kin (Paul Chun) who is always borrowing money for quickies with a local prostitute, the jealous Kam (Hui Bik-kee), and dialysis patient Mui (Hui So-ying). Roger's mother (Wang Fuli) visits from California and suggests providing Tao with a flat the family owns. But then Tao's health worsens.
Among the wide range of subjects on which she's worked in the past 30 years, age has been a gently recurring theme for Hong Kong director Ann HUI 許鞍華. It's dealt with most explicitly in Summer Snow 女人・四十 (1995) and July Rhapsody 男人四十 (2001), her two odes to coping with middle age; but it's also there, in the background, of the comedy The Postmodern Life of My Aunt 姨媽的後現代生活 (2006) and her recent working-class duo, The Way We Are 天水圍的日與夜 (2008) and Night and Fog 天水圍的夜與霧 (2009). In A Simple Life 桃姐 (2011), Hui, now 64 herself, looks old age straight in the face, and comes up with her best and most touching film in a decade.
Based on the true story of veteran film producer Roger LEE 李恩霖 (who worked on Summer Snow) and his own family's amah Chung Chun-tao (who was born in Taishan, China, and joined Lee's family at the age of 13), the movie benefits enormously from its casting. Singer-turned-actress Deanie IP 葉德嫻, best known for her character roles during the '80s and early '90s (My Name Ain't Suzie 花街時代 (1985), Dances with Dragon 與龍共舞 (1991)), plays Tao with an unsentimental mixture of practicality and devotion, and in special make-up the now 63-year-old Ip looks utterly convincing (and almost unrecognisable) as the 70-something Tao. But equally good, in a downplayed way, is megastar Andy LAU 劉德華 (whose Focus Films Ltd 映藝娛樂有限公司 also co-invested) in the role of Lee, here renamed Roger Leung. In their many scenes together, Lau, with deft, almost invisible strokes, comes to embody the emotional heart of the film, as well as its theme of personal and familial responsibility. The two actors, who've played mother and son on TV and film almost a dozen times during the past 30 years, have an unforced chemistry that money couldn't buy.
Most of all, the film isn't a downbeat, depressing study of old age and approaching death. Hui keeps the tone light with some lively characters in the home (especially Paul CHUN 秦沛 as an ageing lothario), a typically Hong Kong practicality about matters like money, and jokey cameos by a large number of real-life movie people either playing themselves (NING Hao 寧浩, Raymond CHOW 鄒文懷) or unnamed versions of themselves (Sammo HUNG 洪金寶, TSUI Hark 徐克, Mainland producer YU Dong 于冬, the last an executive producer of the actual movie). Though an early comic scene of Hung, Tsui and Lau's character scamming some money from Yu looks like setting a too insiderly tone, in the longer span it can be seen as keeping the movie from becoming just another disease-of-the-week melodrama — as do later cameos by Anthony WONG 黃秋生 as an entrepreneurial old people's home owner and Chapman TO 杜汶澤 as a dentist. The use of real-life personalities also fits with the film's melding of fact and fiction.
At almost two hours, A Simple Life is over-long, especially in the middle section where the central story doesn't progress enough. But the film recovers its sense of purpose with a moving final stretch that avoids downbeat clinical detail in favour of a positive approach towards its two characters' relationship. In the only other major role, Mainland actress QIN Hailu 秦海璐 (The Piano in a Factory 鋼的琴 (2010), Return Ticket 到阜陽六百里 (2010)) is excellent as the home's practical but kindly supervisor.
Red One photography by YU Lik-wai 余力為 — in his third collaboration with Hui after the documentary-like Ordinary Heroes 千言萬語 (1999) and more conventional Postmodern — is discreetly warm-toned and well-appointed, and way different from his work with director JIA Zhangke 賈樟柯 and his gritty, hand-held images in the new Love and Bruises 花 (2011). Roger Lee himself worked on the script with Susan CHAN 陳淑賢, better known for her genre movies like Tokyo Raiders 東京攻略 (2000) or Koma 救命 (2004).
ContactSales: Distribution Workshop, Hong Kong (email@example.com)
Premiere: Venice Film Festival (Competition), 5 Sep 2011. Theatrical release: Hong Kong, Mar 2012.
Presented by Bona Entertainment (CN), Focus Films (HK), Sil-Metropole Organisation (HK). Produced by Class Limited (HK). Executive producers: Yu Dong, Andy Lau, Song Dai. Producers: Ann Hui, Roger Lee, Chan Pui-wah.
Script: Susan Chan, Roger Lee. Photography: Yu Lik-wai. Editing: Kong Chi-leung, Manda Wai. Music: Law Wing-fai. Production design: Albert Poon. Costume design: Boey Wong. Styling: Man Lim-chung. Sound: Tu Duu-chih.
Cast: Andy Lau (Roger Leung), Deanie Ip (Chung Chun-tao/Tao), Qin Hailu (Choi, the supervisor), Wang Fuli (Roger's mother), Eman Lam (Carmen), Anthony Wong (Grasshopper), Hui Bik-kee (Kam), Paul Chun (Kin), Hui So-ying (Mui), Elena Kong (Mui's mother), Jason Chan (Jason), Chapman To (dentist), Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark (film-makers in Beijing), Yu Dong (producer in Beijing), Ning Hao, Raymond Chow, John Sham (themselves), Leung Tin, Wendy Yu, Elena Kong.