Monday, 12 March 2012

A Simple Life [Review]

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Opinion: A-

An authentic depiction of one of the several thousand woes that plague mankind. The issue of aging in the Asian community, masterfully crafted by Ann Hui, deserved an accolade for the impeccable eye for detail and faithful redundancy for melodrama. A Simple Life would be like a realistic chapter drawn out of a random citizen's life, just the way life would be and thus relates deeply to every audience member.

Based on real people and events, CHUNG Chun Tao, or Ah Tao, was born in Taishan, China. Her foster-father died during the Japanese Occupation and her foster-mother sent her to work as a servant for the Leung family. She has been in service there for 4 generations lasting 60 years. During this time, some members of the Leung family passed away and some emigrated. For the past decade, Ah Tao lived with Roger, the only family member left in Hong Kong.

Since her teenage years, CHUNG Chun-Tao has worked as an amah – a servant – for the Leung family. Known as Ah Tao, she witnessed every aspect of the family’s life. Now, after 60 years of service, she is looking after Roger, who works in the film industry and is the only member of the family still resident in Hong Kong. One day Roger comes home from work to find that Ah Tao has suffered a stroke. He rushes her to hospital, where she announces that she wants to quit her job and move into a nursing home.

Roger researches the possibilities and finds her a room in an establishment run by an old friend. Ah Tao moves in and begins acquainting herself with a new ‘family’: the brisk but fundamentally kindly supervisor Ms Choi and a motley crew of elderly residents, including the dapper Uncle Kin, the jealous Auntie Kam, the erudite ‘Headmaster’ and the good-hearted dialysis patient Mui Gu. Giving ever more time and attention to Ah Tao’s needs and pleasures, Roger comes to realise how much she means to him. Roger’s mother visits from California and suggests reclaiming an apartment building the family owns to provide Ah Tao with a final home of her own.


A great deal of the qualities received from this film came from the credible acting by its lead actress Deannie Yip as Ah Tao. In all's honesty, it was almost difficult to say that Ip was acting at all. She managed to slip into the facade of Ah Tao and lost herself in it.

While the story unfolded mostly through the perspective of Ah Tao, the observational camera once in a while drifted focus to some of the supporting characters to provide a wider vantage point for the audience. It was through this that we got to realise how Ann Hui's directorial style revealed her maturity in life experience.

Andy Lau may be a an A-list superstar in Asia, but Ann Hui boldly cast him as a lead supporting actor to complement Yip with chemistry. Not forgetting the cameo appearance by veterans like Sammo Hung and Tsui Hark. While Lau might have enjoyed a good amount of screen presence, it would be difficult (at least in my opinion) to consider him as a second lead protagonist. Lau's character Roger, was after all not related by blood to Ah Tao. It was through this scenario where Lau had a rare display of subdued acting with a nonchalant demeanour that was much desired of his role.

This resulted in an ironic fantasy crafted delicately by Ann Hui: An outsider caring for an elderly dutifully as juxtaposed to several others who neglected their elderly family members in disgust.

The Oriental heritage had long cultivated the values of respecting elders and filial piety. As the society evolved with time, domestic sorrows seemed to be on the rise. This was first established with a candid scene of how old folks' homes were set up with good business prospects. We were subsequently treated to various scenes of how some old folks were left at the homes and forgotten by their family. Others had previous baggage and were too stubborn to bury the hatchet in exchange for domestic harmony.

This film had high production values through the lack of it. We were treated to visuals of a typical old folks' home and their daily habitual way of life. Nothing was sugarcoated and glorified, keeping affairs real and raw the way they should be.

Melodrama was kept to a bare minimum, especially noted through the lack of overwhelming sorrowful music. In fact, the sombre film material was finely balanced with a healthy dosage of lighthearted scripting that was best witnessed during a casual teasing of each other's love life between Ah Tao and Roger in a city park one fine afternoon. One thing was certain - Ann Hui was not going to explore coerced reliance of the audience's evoked sense of pity. She wanted to hit it right at the center of our hearts and allow us to trail in self-reflecting thoughts thereafter.

Some might find it questionable, but it actually allowed the message of reality to slap the audience right in their faces:

The issue of aging is indeed very real and it isn't pretty.

(Preview courtesy of Scorpio East and Omy.sg)


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