Film Review: A Simple Life

An elderly servant suffers a stroke, disrupting the life of her employer. Moving character study from noted filmmaker Ann Hui.

Simple and understated, A Simple Life depicts the relationship between an elderly servant and her employer in clear-eyed yet tender terms. Deliberate pacing and downbeat plotting may limit its appeal, but the film packs a devastating emotional punch.

Roger Leung (Andy Lau), an accountant specializing in film, lives in a small Hong Kong apartment with Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), a maid and cook who has served his family for 60 years. Roger travels frequently for business, and his siblings and mother have immigrated to the United States. When Ah Tao suffers a stroke, he is the only one who can help her.

Roger finds Ah Tao a cubicle in an assisted-living home on a downtown street managed by Ms. Choi (Qin Hailu). The rest of A Simple Life details Ah Tao's struggles to rehabilitate herself, and to adapt to her new surroundings.

Despite the story's potential for melodrama, director Ann Hui steers clear of overt sentimentality. The servant-master relationship between Ah Tao and Roger is explanation enough for their guarded behavior. As Hui depicts them, both have other reasons for being withdrawn and lonely. The orphaned Ah Tao has seen all of her charges and companions leave, while Roger is the last of his family in Hong Kong, clinging to his family's diminished fortunes.

And yet both are surprisingly resilient and optimistic. Ah Tao accepts her new neighbors despite their flaws, just as Roger takes on new responsibilities out of a sense of love and respect instead of obligation.

Susan Chan's script, co-written by Roger Lee and based loosely on his family, is filled with warm vignettes and occasional stabs of heartbreak. Hui stages them all quietly but incisively, using an unobtrusive camera that floats through scenes or peers around doorways and curtains. The film's intimacy is helped immeasurably by Ip and Lau, who have performed together many times before in film and on television.

Lau, one of the reigning superstars of Asian cinema, gives a forthright performance stripped of his usual screen charisma. Ip, Lau's godmother in real life, is a treasure, able to convey exasperation or delight merely by how she darts her eyes. The interaction between the two performers, who are drawing on decades of friendship and work, is dazzling.

A Simple Life at times has the lumpy, unfocused feel of an autobiography that hasn't been completely thought out. Some digressions are less fun than others, and the film's conclusion is evident from the opening scenes. It's never fun to watch someone decline. Yet despite the film's drawbacks, Ah Tao’s dignity and grace can't help but inspire viewers.

Hui, an award-winning director whose films reach back to the 1980s, has worked with similar material before, notably in 1995's Summer Snow, a crucial early feature about Alzheimer's. Like that film, A Simple Life is an irresistible blend of humor and tears, of memory and loss. Only the heartless would fail to be moved by how Hui, Ip and Lau approach death.