Ann Hui’s A Simple Life may have one of the most accurate titles in all of cinema, as the film has a bracingly casual sense of day-to-day working-class life that recalls the films of Jean Renoir or, more recently, Olivier Assayas. A brief pre-title scrawl tells us that a Hong Kong servant by the name of Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) has worked for the Leung family for the better part of 60 years, and that she now resides with Roger (Andy Lau), a film producer who acts as the current informal head of the family. It’s almost immediately apparent that Roger’s the only Leung left who really cares for Ah Tao, as the rest of the family, relocated some time ago to the U.S., only periodically surfaces in an effort to offer the now elderly woman the various platitudes that we traditionally lavish on people who’ve grown to make us faintly uncomfortable. After a stroke early on, Ah Tao asks Roger to place her in a rest home—a request that he hesitantly obliges in order to ease her sense of uselessness (her words) and shame. The rest of the film follows Roger and his former guardian as they steal time to see one another when they can, usually either to take a walk or have a quick, simple dinner, as they try to get a handle on a rapidly approaching inevitability.
Lau is a major star in China, of course, and for good reason, but I’m not sure I’ve ever personally seen him sustain such a difficult role with such fluid subtlety. It’s clear that Roger has no life outside of Ah Tao and his career, and Lau allows you to see that in his slight physical withdrawal from other people as well as with the occasional bruised smile. Roger’s good looking and successful, but something in him remains socially stunted—a mystery that Lau doesn’t shortchange with actorly ploys for easy tears. As Ah Tao, Ip is heartbreaking in a largely internal role as a woman trying her damndest to hold onto her dignity as her body continually betrays her.
Ann Hui’s direction is deceptively simple; she hides the relatively conventional design of each scene by letting them breathe more than usual, a shrewd approach that eventually constrains A Simple Life as the film approaches its second hour. You may appreciate Hui’s empathy and refusal to provide conventionally melodramatic plot turns, but also wonder if Ah Tao’s unceasing need for Roger would ever just occasionally rub him the wrong way. Anyone who’s ever lived with an elderly person in need of considerable care knows an ugly truth: that, no matter how much you love them, there are still times where you’d like nothing more than to be free of them, a fantasy that immediately leads to guilt and self-loathing. Roger, on the other hand, is a sad-eyed saint who never once even raises his voice, a fantasy of the person we’d all like to be while in the midst of a situation that’ll affect virtually all of us in one fashion or another. A Simple Life is moving and well made, but it could use a little emotional grit and, while we’re at it, a sense of humor. Roger and Ah Tao would appear to be nice, admirable people, but their virtue grows a little tedious after awhile and you can’t help but wonder what the rest of the family’s up to here in the ’ol U.S. of A.