#200: A Simple Life (2011)

Smile though your heart is breaking

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.

IMDb it.

#186: Dog Days (2001)

Paradise Lost.

Stepping away from filming documentary subjects, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days is a soporific and contemptible debut feature film.

Set in an unnamed Vienna suburb during the hottest weekend of the year, this Venice Film Festival prize-winning feature inconsolably depicts the banality of bourgeois living. With little to no exposition, Seidl presents a series of vignettes, all tied together by their shallow despair and deadly sins parables. One sexually starved middle-aged woman who passively harbors a sadistic, enraged boyfriend and his equally abusive friend; another submissive female working as a stripper who’s paranoid, envious husband beats up anyone looking at her the wrong way; a divorced couple miserably living under the same roof; a slothful widow who forces his cleaner to dress up in his dead wife’s clothing and gratify his sexual needs; and last, but not least, an annoying and mentally-unstable female hitchhiker who is turned into a sexually punished scapegoat for an outbreak of vandalism cases. Misogynistic and degradingly lewd throughout the entire two hours, these mainly nameless figures are pawn’s in Seidl’s sadistic game of chess. Moving around this claustrophobic, manufactured setting with no chance to escape.

What’s most depressing and pathetic about Dog Days is that it unashamedly wears it’s influences right on it’s sleeve. Relishing in audience provocation like Austria’s filmmaking enfant terrible Michael Haneke and debunking prissy suburban stereotypes in a comedic light like Todd Solondz. Seidl’s film feels so laboured and mimetic that any space for an undermining social message is burned.

Aside from a few oxymoronically appealing still photography shots of the seedy setting from cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, Dog Days is stylistically void, intellectually vapid, narratively coarse, and exploitative of its actors in the worst possible way (there’s various sequences including real penetrative sex, did I forget to mention that?). It is nothing more than ugly people leading ugly lives and doing ugly things to each other. If in the right hands, it could be material for a very interesting film, but this is not that film, and this is not that director.

IMDb it.


1) Dog Days’ casting director is none other than Austrian rising star/mini-Haneke Markus Schleinzer. Do check out his similarly incendiary drama Michael released earlier this year.

2) If this written review doesn’t meet the cut of your jib, then be sure to check out the new edition of the downloadable audio podcast, with extra special guest Mads Kjeldgaard. It’ll be on Soundcloud this time tomorrow (July 31st).