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Simple Life, A (Tao Jie)
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by Jay Seaver

"A perfectly (and deceptively) simple movie, and a great one."
5 stars

"A Simple Life" opens with a screen of text explaining how these characters got to this point in their lives, but is intriguingly silent on why its two main characters are mostly alone except for each other. That's fine; it means that the focus stays on the relationship between a woman and the man whose family she served for her entire life, and figuring out what it is.

Chung Chun-Tao (Deannie Yip Tak-Han) was orphaned when just a child, soon entering into service with a well-to-do Hong Kong family. Now, sixty years later, the only one remaining in Hong Kong is Roger (Andy Lau Tak-wah), who works in the movie business and shares a small apartment with "Ah Tao" and her cat Kaka. Just as he's returning from a business trip to Beijing, Ah Tao has a stroke, immediately retiring and planning to move into an old persons' home. Roger is not quite ready to part with someone who has been there for his entire life, and Ah Tao may eventually be grateful for that.

It's a bit odd typing the word "service" in this context for a picture that takes place in the present day, and "master" was plenty jarring when used in the film; maybe it seems less anachronistic in Hong Kong or in wealthier circles. Even if that's the case, director Ann Hui, writers Susan Chan Suk-Yin and Lee Yan-lam, and the cast get across what a profoundly strange, inherently asymmetrical relationship this can be. There are plenty of moments where Ah Tao seems to actively fight Roger and his family having any further involvement in her life; this and how she barks at another resident when he says it sounds like she has a servant's name makes it sounds like she's ashamed of a life spent subordinate to others. As the movie continues, and the audience sees other members of Roger's family, we get an impressively even-handed view of how they see each other differently - how well-earned generosity can seem patronizing and other disconnects.

The audience understands this even though Ah Tao never vocalizes them in anything close to a direct manner - Deannie Yip's performance is really a tour de force. Some bits of it are mechanical, but almost perfectly so - there's not a single false note to her as a stroke victim, for instance; the partial paralysis seems entirely authentic, but not so overpowering that it ever blots out Ah Tao's personality. Yip navigates the contradictory elements that make Ah Tao human and believable perfectly; the familial affection never conflicts with her feeling like an outsider, and it seems perfectly natural for her to be stubborn, self-sacrificing, ashamed that she's spent her whole life that way and without apparent regret.

She also has a great rapport with Andy Lau, which is perhaps not surprising - a little digging on IMDB indicates that Yip is in fact Lau's godmother (the relationship others ascribe to their characters). Wherever the on-screen affection-with-bounds comes from, it's perfect. That means Lau is doing some fine work as well. Roger is an interesting character in his own right, a fearsome negotiator where business is involved but seeming a bit isolated even when with a group of friends. Lau also does a nice job of not just making Ah Tao a surrogate mother to Roger (or granny, as the movie occasionally seems fuzzy on Roger's age); as close as they become, that she was once an employee is visible in his attitude as well.

Hui and company put quite the enjoyable cast around the pair, too. Roger's job in the movie industry gets us a couple of early, funny cameos by Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung (Lau's directors on the recent Detective Dee) as themselves, while Chapman To Man-chat and Anthony Wong Chau-sang are among the many actors that Chinese film fans may recognize in small roles. Then there's Paul Chun Chin-Pei as a fellow resident looking to keep active in his old age, and Amanda Qin Hailu as the businesslike but basically good nurse tasked with keeping the place running.

The way Hui handles the old folks' home is one of several quite clever things she does here: When the audience first sees it, the audience will likely feel some revulsion - it's cluttered, located in a storefront, with a small common area and residents' rooms that are more like office cubicles. As the movie goes on, it seems more pleasant, with Ah Tao making friends Ms. Choi seeming less severe, Roger regularly visiting... Then, something happens and Hui suddenly goes back to the angles she and cinematographer Nelson Yu Kik-wai had been using earlier and brings the lights that the audience hadn't even noticed were getting brighter back down, and the audience hopefully realizes that she'd made us buy into what we want these places to be rather than what they actually are, which is a little food for thought that ties into the rest of the movie without overpowering it the way it could have.

In fact, there are a lot of nice details in the margins of "A Simple Life" that make it even richer than it could be. It would still be a very impressive movie without them; Deannie Yip is reason enough to see this film on her own. That every detail works is a bonus, making the movie a real must-see.

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originally posted: 04/22/12 03:58:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 26-Feb-2013



Directed by
  Ann Hui

Written by
  Susan Chan
  Yan-lam Lee

  Andy Lau
  Deanie Ip
  Wang Fuli
  Qin Hailu

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