Sunday, September 2, 2012

Quiet Currents of Emotion – Ann Hui’s “A Simple Life”

Andy Lau and Deanie Ip in Ann Hui's A Simple Life.

Although Hong Kong cinema is best known in the West for its kinetic, over the top action, it has an equally venerable tradition of family melodramas rife with tear-jerking tragedy. Alex Law’s Echoes of the Rainbow is but one recent example of this long standing genre. A Simple Life (Tao Jie), the latest effort from HK legend Ann Hui, fits into this filmic lineage, but it’s at the more restrained end of the melodramatic spectrum – a brooding, melancholy take on life’s meaning rather than an unabashed weepie.

A casual synopsis of the film reveals little of the its depth. Ah Tao, the aging servant of an unmarried, middle-aged movie producer named Roger Leung, has a stroke and decides to retire. Tao has been with his family since before Leung's birth, so he offers to take care of her, paying for Tao's move into an old people’s home. He visits her regularly and takes her out on the town. It doesn’t sound like the most engaging of stories, and the “caring master-devoted servant” theme could be retch-inducing in the wrong hands. Hui, however, manages to pull it off.

The film’s success is partly down to the beautifully understated performances from Andy Lau as Roger Leung and his real-life godmother Deanie Ip as Ah Tao. Initially Lau’s character comes across as self absorbed and somewhat callous. In one of the film’s first sequences, Tao quietly prepares a meal for him, which he takes without a word, except to ask Tao for ox tongue in the near future. Only her amusing dismissal of his request hints at the depth of their relationship. With little display of overt emotion from either of the leads, we are left to read their true feelings into such small scale encounters and their simple acts of care for each other.

Scriptwriter Susan Chan refrains from sentimentalising the relationship, implying a subtle distance rooted in class difference and a background awareness that theirs is a master-servant arrangement, however much they look out for one another. The film manages to capture the unique sense of filial duty that can underpin such relationships, without ever romanticising the terms of the bond between Leung and Ah Tao.

There is also sense of loneliness informing both the main characters that transcends their social roles. The rest of Leung’s family has long ago immigrated to the United States, and he appears to have few friends and no-one special in his life. We see no evidence of even casual girlfriends. He goes about his work without passion, and at times comes across as an empty shell. After taking Ah Tao to the debut of one of his movies, he brushes off her congratulations with the frank admission that his film is not really much good. Ah Tao is similarly endistanced from those around her, with no family or friends. Even her pet cat has to be left behind when she moves into the old people’s home.

The loneliness of the big city - Deanie Ip as the aging Ah Tao in Ann Hui's A Simple Life.

The sense of being hemmed in by the big city, yet distant from those around you, is nicely conveyed by Hui’s framing of Hong Kong, an environment dominated by skyscrapers and high density apartment living. The drama is shot with a suitably claustrophobic shallow depth of field, with walls, concrete and people constantly edging into frame. The emotional distance of Ah Tao from her surrounds is especially poignant in the scenes in the old people’s home. Although clean and well run, the facility is little more than a series of tiny partitioned spaces crammed into the ground floor of a high rise building. There’s none of the garden surrounds and self-contained units associated with our idealised image of aged care facilities.

Yet for all its melancholy, there's also humour and a lightness of touch to A Simple Life. Hui is also mercifully restrained in her use of the kind of overtly emotive music that usually overlays every scene in Chinese melodramas. And there's no "road to Damascus" moment that neatly ties up the action and leaves everyone feeling smug. Instead we simply see complex, ordinary people trying to come to terms with life's changes with quiet humour, stoicism and grace.

So beneath its restrained surface, A Simple Life is not so simple. A strong current of emotion runs between these characters, and around the straightforward plot Hui weaves reflections on the nature of life, class and meaning in a fast paced city where work dominates people’s lives, yet leaves many feeling empty.

Hui’s film obviously struck a chord in its hometown, where it has been one of the highest grossing domestically produced films of 2012. It also took out numerous gongs at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Film, Best Director and best Actor and Actress. Apparently the movie’s success persuaded Ann Hui to postpone her intended retirement from directing, which can only be a good thing for Hong Kong cinema. A Simple Life is that rarest of things – a lcoalised story that resonates beyond its setting. Although few of us live in environments quite as intense as Hong Kong, in an increasingly materialistic, urbanised world it’s easy to loose sight of the fact that the way we treat one another is more important than anything.

A Simple Life screened at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, which ran from August 2-19.

Director Ann Hui (far left) with the cast of A Simple Life at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, where the film won several awards including Best Actress for Deanie Ip.

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