By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Hong Kong director Ann Hui built her reputation on impeccably constructed and realistic portraits of people trying to get through everyday problems. Her heroes and heroines often find themselves struggling to adapt to new situations and break out of old routines. Her latest film, “A Simple Life,” starring Hong Kong legends Andy Lau and Deanie Ip, aptly continues that tradition.
As the film opens, Sister Tao, played by Deanie Ip, has been a servant to the Leung family in Hong Kong for 60 years, starting in her teens. She still looks after one younger family member, Roger, played by Andy Lau, a film executive who spends a great deal of time traveling. However, he always looks to Sister Tao for his meals, laundry, and other domestic needs.
Sister Tao suffers a health crisis that dramatically changes both their lives. Roger wants to do the best he can for his faithful servant, who is almost, though not quite, like a family member. But he isn’t quite sure how to go about this. Sister Tao’s hard-nosed attitude and occasional flashes of temper make the situation more uncertain.
One of Cantonese-language cinema’s more unlikely success stories, Andy Lau grew up hauling water several times a day to his parent’s house, which was not equipped with plumbing. He has played gangsters, gamblers, lovers, prisoners, and detectives. He also retains a loyal following as a Canto-pop singer.
Roger’s character requires Lau to communicate with subtlety. He rises admirably to this challenge, revealing his character’s thoughts with an evocative sigh, a frown, a small smile, or a glare. He evokes his character’s feelings with his posture and stride.
Like Lau, Deanie Ip, 14 years older than her co-star, has spent years acting and singing. As Sister Tao, Ip must show a strong resolve despite her character’s illness. She manifests the physical symptoms of that illness perfectly, while retaining a shrewd look in her eyes and an insistently upright carriage.
Ann Hui’s direction follows her characters deftly, always giving them space together before moving in for telling close-ups. Her cast sometimes stumbles or fumbles in front of the camera, reinforcing their uncertainty in unforeseen circumstances. Hui knows exactly when to sum up a mood with a poetic pan across the entire landscape.
Cameos from Hong Kong stars add spice to the film. Director Tsui Hark, actor and director Sammo Hung, and singer Angelababy, among others, pop up in scenes of Leung’s wheeling and dealing. These scenes add depth to Roger’s character and reinforce the wide chasm between the elegant sophistication in his professional life and his frustrations with Sister Tao on the domestic front.
Ann Hui originally planned to retire, announcing “A Simple Life” as her final film. In the wake of its popularity and awards — including awards for Hui and Ip at the Venice International Film Festival and awards for Hui and both leads at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival — she has reconsidered and decided to look for new projects. Her good fortune is world cinema’s reward. (end)
“A Simple Life” opens Friday, April 20, at the AMC Pacific Place Theater, 600 Pine Street in downtown Seattle. For prices and showtimes, check local listings or call 1-888-262-4386.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.