A Simple Life
Hong Kong, 2011, colour, 1.85:1, 119 mins.
Director: Xu Anhua 许鞍华 [Ann Hui].
Memorable chemistry by the two lead actors elevates this moving story of an amah’s final lap.
Hong Kong, the present day. Zhong Chuntao (Ye Dexian) has worked for the Liang family as an amah for 60 years. She now looks after Roger Liang (Liu Dehua), who came back to Hong Kong in his 30s and is the only member of the family still based there. A film producer, Roger is currently working between Hong Kong and Beijing on a large-scale costume drama, Three Kingdoms 三国演义, to be shot in China and involving two Hong Kong film-makers (Hong Jinbao, Xu Ke) and a Mainland financier (Yu Dong). Returning from one trip, Roger finds Zhong Chuntao has had a stroke; later, in hospital, she tells him she’d like to finally give up work and be put in an old people’s home. Roger finds one in Shenshuibu [Sham Shui Po], a poor district in northwest Kowloon, supervised by the business-like but kindly Miss Cai (Qin Hailu). Small and crowded, it’s initially a depressing experience but Zhong Chuntao slowly gets to adjust and to know her fellow inhabitants, including the lively Uncle Jian (Qin Pei) who is always borrowing money for quickies with a local prostitute, the jealous Auntie Jin (Xu Biji), and the dialysis patient Mei (Xu Suying). Roger’s mother (Wang Fuli) visits from California and suggests providing Zhong Chuntao with a flat the family owns. But then Zhong Chuntao’s health worsens.
Among the wide range of subjects on which she’s worked in the past 30 years, age has been a gently recurring theme for Hong Kong director Xu Anhua 许鞍华 [Ann Hui]. It’s dealt with most explicitly in Summer Snow 女人•四十 (1995) and July Rhapsody 男人四十 (2002), her two odes to coping with middle age; but it’s also there, in the background, of the comedy The Postmodern Life of My Aunt 姨妈的后现代生活 (2006) and her recent working-class duo, The Way We Are 天水围的日与夜 (2008) and Night and Fog 天水围的夜与雾 (2009). In A Simple Life 桃姐, Xu, now 64 herself, looks old age straight in the face, and comes up with her best and most touching film in a decade.
Based on the true story of veteran film producer Li Enlin 李恩霖 [Roger Lee], who worked on Summer Snow, and his own family’s amah Zhong Chuntao 钟春桃 (who was born in Taishan, China, and joined Li’s family at the age of 13), the movie benefits enormously from its casting. Singer-turned-actress Ye Dexian 叶德娴 [Deanie Ip], best known for her character roles during the 1980s (My Name Ain’t Suzie 花街时代, 1985; Dances with Dragon 与龙共舞, 1991), plays Tao with an unsentimental mixture of practicality and devotion, and in special make-up the now 63-year-old Ye looks utterly convincing (and almost unrecognisable) as the 70-something Zhong Chuntao. But equally good, in a downplayed way, is Hong Kong megastar Liu Dehua 刘德华 [Andy Lau] – whose Focus Films also co-produced – in the role of Li, here renamed Liang Luojie 梁罗杰 [Roger Liang]. In their many scenes together, Liu, with deft, almost invisible strokes, comes to embody the emotional heart of the film, as well as its theme of personal and familial responsibility. The two actors, who’ve played mother and son on TV and film almost a dozen times during the past 30 years, have an unforced chemistry that money couldn’t buy.
Most of all, the film isn’t a downbeat, depressing study of old age and approaching death. Xu keeps the tone light with some lively characters in the home (especially Qin Pei 秦沛 [Paul Chun] as an ageing lothario), a typically Hong Kong practicality about matters like money, and jokey cameos by a large number of real-life movie people either playing themselves – China’s Ning Hao 宁浩, Hong Kong’s Zou Wenhuai 邹文怀 [Raymond Chow] – or unnamed versions of themselves – Hong Jinbao 洪金宝 [Sammo Hung], Xu Ke 徐克 [Tsui Hark], Mainland producer Yu Dong 于冬, the last an executive producer of the actual movie. Though an early comic scene of Hong, Xu and Liu’s character scamming some money from Yu looks like setting a too insiderly tone, in the longer span it can be seen as keeping the movie from becoming just another disease-of-the-week melodrama – as do later cameos by Huang Qiusheng 黄秋生 [Anthony Wong] as an entrepreneurial old people’s home owner and Du Wenze 杜汶泽 [Chapman To] as a dentist. The use of real-life personalities also fits with the film’s melding of fact and fiction.
At almost two hours, A Simple Life is over-long, especially in the middle section where the central story doesn’t progress enough. But the film recovers its sense of purpose with a moving final stretch that avoids downbeat clinical detail in favour of a positive approach towards its two characters’ relationship. In the only other major role, Mainland actress Qin Hailu 秦海璐 (The Piano in a Factory 钢的琴, 2010; Return Ticket 到阜阳六百里, 2011) is excellent as the home’s practical but kindly supervisor.
Red One photography by Hong Kong d.p. Yu Liwei 余力为 – in his third collaboration with Xu Anhua after the documentary-like Ordinary Heroes 千言万语 (1999) and more conventional Postmodern – is discreetly warm-toned and well-appointed, and way different from his work with Mainland director Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯 and from his gritty, hand-held images in the recent Love and Bruises 花 (2011). Li Enlin himself worked on the script with Chen Shubao 陈叔宝 [Susan Chan], better known for her genre movies like Tokyo Raiders 东京攻略 (2000) or Koma 救命 (2004).
Presented by Bona Entertainment (HK), Focus Films (HK), Sil-Metropole Organisation (HK). Produced by Class Limited (HK).
Script: Chen Shuxian [Susan Chan], Li Enlin [Roger Lee]. Photography: Yu Liwei. Editing: Kuang Zhiliang, Wei Shufen. Music: Luo Yonghui. Production design: Pan Yisen. Costume design: Wang Baoyi. Styling: Wen Nianzhong [Man Lim-chung]. Sound: Du Duzhi.
Cast: Liu Dehua [Andy Lau] (Liang Luojie/Roger), Ye Dexian [Deanie Ip] (Zhong Chuntao), Qin Hailu (Miss Cai, supervisor), Wang Fuli (Roger’s mother), Lin Erwen (Carmen), Huang Qiusheng [Anthony Wong] (Grasshopper, old people’s home owner), Xu Biji (Auntie Jin), Qin Pei [Paul Chun] (Uncle Jian), Xu Suying (Mei), Jiang Meiyi (nursing-home inmate’s daughter), Chen Zhishen (Jason, Roger’s nephew), Du Wenze [Chapman To] (dentist), Hong Jinbao [Sammo Hung], Xu Ke [Tsui Hark] (film-makers in Beijing), Yu Dong (producer in Beijing), Ning Hao, Luo Lan, Zou Wenhuai [Raymond Chow], Cen Jianxun [John Sham], Liu Weiqiang [Andrew Lau], Li Yanshan (themselves), Liang Tian (schoolmaster), Gong Xuehua (hospital nurse), Tan Bingwen (nursing-home visitor), Yu Mei (singer), Lou Nanguang (Wu Xing), Zhan Ruiwen, Mai Runshou, Liu Guochang [Lawrence Ah Mon] (Roger’s high-school friends), Lin Yinuo (priest), Zhu Huimin (bank employee).
Premiere: Venice Film Festival (Competition), 5 Sep 2011.
Release: Hong Kong, 9 Mar 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 8 Sep 2011.)