Film producer Roger Lee (Andy Lau) lives with his elderly housemaid Ah Tao (Deannie Yip) who practically raised him since childhood. One day Ah Tao suffers a stroke. Rather than burden her master, she asks to be placed in a care home where life alongside other ailing elderly residents grows increasingly melancholy and monotonous while Roger is away with his film career. But as Roger grows to realise how much Ah Tao means to him, there is a subtle shift in their relationship as he endeavours to ensure she lives out her twilight years as contentedly as possible. As Ah Tao’s health worsens, Roger must make a difficult choice.
Based on the true-life experience of producer/co-scriptwriter Roger Lee, A Simple Life is another deceptively genteel, contemplative drama from eclectic Hong Kong New Wave auteur Ann Hui. From her early breakout films - giallo-esque thriller The Secret (1979) and zany ghost comedy The Spooky Bunch (1980) - Hui has been impossible to pigeonhole, shifting from social interest dramas like The Boat People (1981) to period kung fu epic Romance of Book and Sword (1984), offbeat thrillers Zodiac Killers (1991) and Visible Secret (2001) and most importantly tranquil, subtly affecting dramas like the award-winning Summer Snow (1995) while her enduring screen partnership with Chow Yun-Fat is arguably as important as his work with John Woo and Ringo Lam.
Although A Simple Life boasts a scenario as ripe for the milking of hot salty tears as any disease-of-the-week made for-TV movie, Hui’s unobtrusive, observational style quashes any potential outbreak of saccharine sentimentality. Characters endure tragic events with a stoic, almost introverted reserve that coupled with the stark white visuals conveys an unusually austere tone, though offset by lively characterisations. It is not a film where characters rail against the dying of the light but instead accept the inevitable with grace and gentle humour.
The film does address the important issue of health care for the elderly in Hong Kong and broaches satire when Roger discovers the care home is run by an older triad shyster friend of his played by Anthony Wong, in a typically eccentric performance. Coldly efficient care workers hustle the old folks about like the living dead, celebrities visit on Chinese New Year handing out fake gifts for a TV special, but the tone is one of bemusement rather than outrage. The staff are not portrayed as villains, simply flawed human beings grinding their way through a difficult job. Nevertheless, scenes in the old folks home have a haunting quality, not least because many of the residents are played by a host of familiar character actors. For long-time Hong Kong film fans it is like watching old friends slowly fade into obscurity, an almost unbearably melancholic experience that is wholly apt. Among the film’s additional delights are gregarious supporting performances from the likes of Tsui Hark, Sammo Hung and Chapman To appearing as themselves while there are further cameos from such leading industry lights as Raymond Chow, AngelaBaby, Stanley Kwan, Andrew Lau, and others.
Languid pacing reveals the occasional crack in the episodic narrative and a running gag where Roger is repeatedly mistaken for a repairman or taxi driver falls flat, but the film remains deeply moving thanks in large part to the beautifully etched performances delivered by multi-award-winning actress-singer Deannie Yip and risk-taking superstar Andy Lau. Though there is undeniable affection between the two, Roger deals with Ah Tao’s deteriorating condition with a certain pragmatic resignation that proves unsettling in the context of a movie but otherwise underlines a commendable dedication to naturalism.