Tear-jerking and plaintive, the aptly named A Simple Life unfurls the multifaceted relationship between an elderly servant and her sprightly employer amongst the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong city life. Deliberately slow-paced and limited plotting may limit its appeal, but Ann Hui’s astute drama packs a devastating emotional punch.
In the opening title cards, we learn that, since left as an orphan, the now elderly Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) has served as maid to the Leung family over the last sixty years. Brought up to the present day, we see her preparing dinner for the third generation Roger Leung (Andy Lau), a film financier living in a crowded Hong Kong apartment. There since birth, Ah Tao has become a part of the furniture in Roger’s life, incognizant of her deteriorating health. He travels frequently for business, and to see his siblings and mother now living in the United States. Returning late one evening, he arrives to find his faithful house-assistant has suffered a stroke.
Then on in, A Simple Life becomes an overtly emotional ride. Relocating Ah Tao to assisted-living quarters for old timers, Roger finally acknowledges the muted relationship he has with his housemaid, embracing the tender maternal love he has always taken for granted. But, like this brilliant character story, their role reversal-cum-blossoming kinship has a termination date. With the suffering Ah Tao slowly approaching the finishing line, Roger is the doting son she never had, caring for her until the very end.
Despite the potential risk of venturing into melodrama, director Ann Hui steers clear of saccharine stereotypes. Instead, the naturalistic portrayal of Ah Tao and Roger’s friendship is completely authentic and more surprisingly optimistic. The resilient Ah Tao accepts her new neighbors despite their flaws and her timely fate, just as Roger takes on new responsibilities out of a sense of love and respect instead of obligation.
Based loosely on A Simple Life’s producer Roger Lee’s own family experience, the film’s intimacy is helped immeasurably by actors Ip and Lau. The pair’s onscreen chemistry is astonishing and together they carry the film, managing to evoke a raw emotional connection to the common themes of love, loss and regret. Idiosyncratically expressed, but wholly universal.
A Simple Life often comes across as a trifle unfocused and cluttered, playing out like a fuzzily remembered autobiography than a complete story. Even with these tidbits, it’s an inspiring, unassuming gem of Hong-Kongese cinema.