Veteran Hong Kong New Wave director Ann Hui’s latest offers an insightful glimpse into the realities of city life.
Never has a hunk of steamed ox tongue revealed more about the delicate relationship between a master and his servant than in veteran Hong Kong New Wave director Ann Hui’s latest film.
In slicing the mass of brown meat and devouring it over a game of cards, Roger(Andy Lau) and his old classmates fondly remember the role that Ah Tao – Roger’s family servant of 60 years and the cook of that now-demolished morsel – played in their lives. It reveals as much about class in contemporary Asian society as family life and loneliness.
While Ah Tao (Deannie Yip) lies in an old people’s home after a stroke that has left her partially paralysed, the important part she played in their lives is revealed through the enjoyment of this bovine delicacy.
And yet no sooner has Roger and Ah Tao’s relationship been established in all its quiet practicality than Hui subverts it. After her stroke, Roger realises Ah Tao’s significance; a tender maternal love he took for granted. He becomes her carer, paying for her treatment and supporting her through her slow physical and mental demise, assuming the role of the doting son she never had.
Elegantly and with weighty linearity, Hui weaves the burden of Ah Tao’s impending death into the very core of A Simple Life. The depiction of Hong Kong is muted and heavy; it’s not the bustling, vital metropolis usually portrayed on film, but a tightly packed collection of individuals struggling to understand their place in the world, all followed by Hui’s restless, stalking lens.
When Ah Tao arrives at the old people’s home for the first time – a shanty town of ply board partitions in a vast warehouse room – she lies miserably on the bed, and Hui’s camera remains perched atop the partition, leaving her loneliness to be felt, but leaving her well alone. It’s a displaced visual tenderness, a closeness once removed, a beautiful iteration of the themes of the film.
Deannie Yip, who was named Best Actress at the 2011 Venice Film Festival for her role as the humble servant, brilliantly manages to split mind and body, depicting Ah Tao’s feisty, witty character as she becomes trapped inside a body nearing its end. Andy Lau is compelling, too, as a hard-edged businessman softened by his realisation of deep feelings for his servant.
In A Simple Life, Hui has (re)confirmed that she is a masterful observer of the idiosyncrasies of city life, capable of forensic attention to seemingly mundane moments from which she is able to reveal something moving, tender and often overlooked. The folding of a bed or the eating of a meal in a café become signifiers of invisible yet shifting social bonds, deeply felt but never voiced.
A long, slow film about a servant’s death? Not on a sunny afternoon.
Surprisingly compelling in its languid beauty.
A film that will fill you with a sense of hope, and a glimpse into the realities of life in modern Hong Kong.