DVD Review: ‘A Simple Life’

This year’s other great work about the hardships of old age and the inevitability of death – released in UK cinemas several months before Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning Amour (2012) – Ann Hui’s A Simple Life (2011) makes its way onto DVD and Blu-ray this week, where it should hopefully continue to win over deserved plaudits. A sensitively presented and extremely touching portrayal of life in one of rapidly ageing Hong Kong’s numerous homes for the elderly, Hui’s latest effort revels in life’s quietest, yet most profound moments, further galvanised by two heartfelt performances from Andy Lau and Deanie Ip.

Skilled cook and keen cat lover Ah Tao (Ip) has served the same Hong Kong household for six decades, and now that most of the family have emigrated to the US, she remains as the dutiful maid to affluent film producer Roger, the youngest son (Lau). Their interconnected lives are irrevocably changed forever when Roger comes home to find that Tao has suffered a debilitating stroke. Roger rushes his beloved maid to hospital, where she announces that she wants to retire and move to a nursing home. As Tao’s condition deteriorates, roles are reversed and Roger dutifully comforts his lifelong friend as she prepares for the inevitable.

A more than worthy recipient of the prestigious Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, Ip is quite simply magnificent as the selflessly altruistic Ah Tao, her first role (remarkably) in over eleven years. She imbues the tireless maid with a great sense of both duty and dignity, which makes her slow decline into dependency all the more heartrending. Hit hardest by Tao’s fading health is Roger, with Lau once again in commanding form as the spoilt rich kid-come-good. Hui’s film pivots effortlessly on this warm, yet never sentimentalised relationship between trusted confident and humbled master, near-certain to break through and touch even the most icy-hearted of viewers.

Beyond the film’s central pairing, A Simple Life also provides a very frank and honest depiction of Hong Kong’s care system. Whilst Hui is never overtly critical of the hardworking nurses that man the depicted old people’s home night and day, the sometimes vacant, sometimes confused faces of its senior residents feels intrinsically – and deeply – melancholic. As with Haneke’s most recent Cannes hit, Hui hasn’t set out to make a traditional tearjerker, but instead relies upon the both strength of her characters and the empathy of the film’s audience to cement that crucial emotional connection.

Whilst perhaps just falling short of the the same artistic heights scaled by Haneke’s magnificent Amour, Hui’s A Simple Life holds firm as one of the year’s most affectionate and affecting dramas, dealing with that most unfashionable of topics – old age – with the due care and thought that it so readily deserves. For fans of the outstanding
Deanie Ip, on top form throughout, the 11-year wait for he next turn was more than worth it.

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Daniel Green