A Simple Life (Tao jie, 2011)

Director: Ann Hui

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free.” Is a simple life a free, uncomplicated life, as the song “Simple Gifts” suggests? Or is a simple life one whose complexities and nuances we are too busy or insensitive to notice? Veteran filmmaker Ann Hui is now approaching the age of the 70-year-old servant Ah Tao (Deannie Yip), the central character in her quietly observant film A Simple Life, and it appears that maturity has caused Hui to reflect on the many small details that make up a long life. Hui’s film offers us the radical idea that careful observation can make even the most simple-sounding life an incredible tale.

Busy Hong Kong filmmaker Roger Leung (Andy Lau) has never known life without Ah Tao. She entered the service of his family at the age of 10. Although her full name is Chung Chun Tao, she is now simply Ah Tao to everyone she meets, a reminder that servants the world over are a little less than full people to their employers and the outside world. Ah Tao has tended generations of Leungs, but most of the family has died or moved to the United States. Now it is only the frequently absent Roger who accepts the magnificent meals Ah Tao cooks without even looking up and walks out the door without a friendly good-bye. The taken-for-granted housekeeper doesn’t seem to mind—her job is her life, and the Leungs the only family she has.

Ah Tao worries about Roger’s health, reminding him when he asks her to cook him ox tongue that he only just recovered from heart surgery and that he must watch his diet. Nonetheless, we watch, tantalized, as Ah Tao tosses herbs and vegetables into a pot of water, places an ox tongue in it, and sets the lid on top for braising until Roger returns home that evening from a short trip. Roger rings the bell to his apartment and bangs on the door, asking Ah Tao to open it because he forgot his keys. The scene cuts to two EMTs moving Ah Tao on a gurney into an ambulance. The elderly lady has suffered a stroke. From this point on, Roger becomes aware of who Ah Tao is and what she means to him, as he attends to her in the nursing home she asks to be moved to and includes her in his life in a way he never imagined he would. He has finally noticed her.

A Simple Life could have turned into a sentimental story, reminiscent of Tuesdays with Morrie, about a sweet old lady and the master who loves her. That certainly is communicated clearly by Lau and the luminous Deannie Yip, and the film is based on real events in the life of Roger Lee, the film’s producer, who certainly would have had a say on the tone of the story. But the realities of growing old and dying take up a great deal of the film. Ah Tao is lucky to have a family devoted to her, particularly Roger, but she never quite forgets her place. When she is too infirm to work, she tells Roger to call his mother in San Francisco and say she’s retiring. Her next instruction is to find her an “old folks home.” She feels the divide between her job and her life, and Roger can’t shame her by offering to hire a private-duty nurse for her to live with them.

The reality of life in a nursing home isn’t glossed either, with Hui shooting with a handheld camera to get as in our face as possible. Ah Tao surveys the elderly men and women lined up in chairs around the periphery of the lobby to catch the sun and some air; when she is escorted to her private room, one of only a few available, she understands why. The room—actually more of a cubicle because its walls don’t reach the ceiling—is small and has a tiny window that barely relieves the darkness and the pervasive odors that go with failing bodies. When Ah Tao has to use the rest room, she stuffs toilet paper up her nose to dampen the smell. We see the distress on her face at the new surroundings that seem designed to remind her of death, but as she has been all her life, she is uncomplaining and sure about her decision.

We recoil in horror at the sight of the home and the people in it, instinctively wanting to avoid facing our own fate, but Hui’s sure hand about making this human warehouse a home and its residents people is really quite miraculous. The nurse administrator seems harsh, but we see her human side when she and Ah Tao share a lonely New Year’s night in the nursing home. We meet one young woman who is talking with her elderly mother; in a surprise to Ah Tao and us, the young woman is living at the home because she needs the kidney dialysis they offer several times a week. When she gets worse, her doctor advises her to go to a nursing home with better equipment; if she could have afforded it—she’s too young for full government disability—she would have gone to such a home in the first place, and we worry about how long her funds will last. We are also aware that her mother may be without someone to care for her, much as the never-married Ah Tao is, when her daughter dies.

One resident, “Uncle” Kin (Paul Chun), is the life of the party, always dancing and singing and arranging games for the other residents. He also always hits Ah Tao and Roger up for money, which they never refuse, that is, until Roger sees him sneaking out with the buxom receptionist (Suet-Ka Fong) to spend it. Roger feels used, but Ah Tao tells him to let Kin have his fun as long as he can—giving to those around her is what Ah Tao’s life was all about. I was quite reminded of my father, who once gave $20 to a beggar with a cock-and-bull story about needing to take his son to the hospital in a taxi; when I told my dad the man was lying, he said, yeah, but he had a good story.

A very telling scene occurs when the Leungs and extended family fly to Hong Kong and introduce their newest family addition to Roger and Ah Tao. Roger and his sister sit in his car and talk about how Ah Tao doted on Roger. The siblings genuinely care for Ah Tao, but Roger’s sister says that taking care of Roger when he was ill really paid off for Ah Tao in her time of need. This was a rather callous statement, I thought, but one that may have been true at the beginning of Ah Tao’s decline. Over time, Roger was able to do what his sister was not—spend time with Ah Tao, learn about his family history through her memories, talk about their respective love lives, give her some pleasure by taking her to the premiere of his new movie, where we get an amusing cameo by Hark Tsui being told by Ah Tao that he shouldn’t smoke. Even the fact that she speaks Cantonese when Hong Kong is welcoming more Mandarin-speaking Mainlanders marks her as a bit of a relic, as well as a dying treasure from a rich past.

Each character, no matter how small their part, is written, played, and shot with care. From the grocery clerks who play a mean trick on Ah Tao at the beginning of the film to the maneuvers Roger and his film partners use to wrest more money out of their stingy producer, this film seems to want to honor the dignity of all human life, from the “good” characters like Ah Tao to the somewhat sleazy, like the nursing home administrator (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) who is friends with Roger. Hui takes her time in chronicling the many small facets that make up a world. A Simple Life is simply wonderful.

  • Sarah spoke:
    19th/05/2012 to 3:43 am

    Thank you for your wonderful review- I have tickets to see this at the Sydney Film Festival in June and am now looking forward to it that little bit more.

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