Directed by: Ann Hui.
Written by: Susan Chan & Yan-lam Lee.
Starring: Andy Lau (Roger), Deannie Yip (Ah Tao), Paul Chun (Uncle Kin), Pik Kee Hui (Aunt Kam), So-ying Hui (Mui), Fuli Wang (Roger's mother).
After her parents died during the Japanese occupation, Ah Tao (Deannie Yip) was forced into a life of service. She spends the next 60 years serving several generations of the same family. Most of the family has moved to America, but one has stayed behind in China. This is Roger (Andy Lau), a quiet, unassuming movie producer. Ah Tao is still his all-purpose servant – cooking, cleaning, shopping and keeping his small apartment running. They share an unspoken bond and are quietly content in their lives. Then Ah Tao has a stroke. Roger assumes that she will continue to live with him, and that he’ll bring in some help for her, but she insists on being put into an old folks home.
As I was watching A Simple Life, I kept assuming that at some point director Ann Hui and her writers Susan Chan and Yan-Lam Lee would add some false drama to the proceedings. That the old folks home would be crooked or cruel. But while its run down and not exactly high class, they do their best, and everyone is nice. Or that the sad old man who keeps asking for money will eventually scam Ah Tao out of all of her savings. But that doesn’t happen either. Instead A Simple Life is a precisely what the title implies – the story of Ah Tao’s life, and her bond with Roger – and his entire family. This is a true story about the type of woman that they never make movies about.
Deannie Yip plays Ah Tao in one of the best performances of the year. It is a simple, subtle, delicate performance where she plays this normal woman who loves the family she has served for decades, but does not want to be a burden on them. I assumed that the movie would eventually become something like Tokyo Story or Make Way for Tomorrow – two of the greatest films of all time, both about older parents who are pretty much forgotten and rejected by their grown children. Roger starts out the dutiful son surrogate who comes to visit Ah Tao in the old folks home. She tells him not to bother, but he will not be deterred. He loves Ah Tao – has been with her his entire life, and feels it is his duty to serve her to pay her back for everything she has done for him. At the old folks home he says he is her godson – and out at a movie premiere, says she is his Aunt. He does this not for his own benefit, but to make her feel more comfortable – less embarrassed by not having a family of her own – because she really does. And the rest of his family feels the same way. When they come to visit Roger, they all visit her as well – and love it. We meet Roger’s mother, and while she is a nice woman who loves her children, and they love her, they feel an even deeper connection with Ah Tao.
The movie is, like the title suggests, simple. But it is quietly touching as well. We so rarely see real people on screen – people who live unremarkable, yet contented lives. The performances by Yip and Lau are remarkable in how they show these two normal people and their deep connection. A Simple Life is a simple film – but a wonderful one.