With the amount of accolades, both international and local, given to A Simple Life months before its Hong Kong release, the expectation is undeniable: this had better be one damn good movie. Good news: the film passes muster, though not without an adjustment of expectations. A Simple Life is detailed and immersive, but also dry and deceptively cold, choosing to tell its could-be tearjerker tale with low-key subtlety and perhaps alienating distance. The film has a simple story with only occasional narrative flow, and its hands-off approach may not be engaging for casual audiences. However, A Simple Life is a film by Ann Hui, and simple stories are something she’s very, very good at.
Based on the true story of film producer Roger Lee (serving here as both producer and co-screenwriter), A Simple Life details the twilight of Chung Chun-Tao (Deanie Ip), an amah or housemaid to the Leung family who’s forced into retirement when she suffers a stroke. The Leung family only has one remaining family member in Hong Kong: Roger (Andy Lau), a film producer who’s frequently away on location. Tao’s ailing condition means a change in the decades-long status quo, but instead of becoming Roger's burden, she requests to be put into an assisted living home in the Shamshuipo district. There, Tao recovers from her stroke and discovers a new life, while her relationship with Roger undergoes a quiet, gentle change. Ultimately, Tao’s health worsens and Roger must make a difficult choice.
Roger’s choice concerning Tao is the type of dramatic decision that whole films have been built on, with audience waterworks an expected by-product. This is a commercial melodrama trope, and A Simple Life is a true story teeming with them. Imagine you are producer Roger Lee, and you have a chance to place yourself in a story with many tearjerking and heartrending situations. Picturing a movie-of-the-week weepie with life lessons and misty realizations is not hard, but Ann Hui does not go that route, and what’s remarkable is that everyone, including Roger Lee and Andy Lau, went along with her. A Simple Life is effectively told and impeccably performed but it uses moviemaking in a manner that mass audiences usually do not respond to. Basically, it doesn’t really tell them how to feel.
A Simple Life possesses many moments that could be pandering or manipulative. Tao’s stroke is a sudden event, and her companions in the assisted living home are subject to bad news, but Hui routinely shies away from heightened realizations or drama. Some twists are nothing more than mild fakeouts, and some of the biggest events happen offscreen. Emotional choices are quiet and not contemplative; decision-making happens silently, with the film’s biggest moment coming off as remote and even unfeeling. Given Hui’s handling, Roger appears as a conflicted figure – a caring and warm man who’s also pragmatic and seemingly cold. But Roger's big moment is also very much like life. If a man is faced with a tough decision alone, what can he do but simply make it? In another film, full of warm colors and forthcoming sentiment, such a moment would seem nearly cruel. But here, under Ann Hui’s direction, it merely feels real.
Emotion is present in nearly every moment in the film, but it’s not conveyed through dialogue or obvious direction. Much of A Simple Life is observational, with characters and actions telling the story, and the focus isn't entirely on Roger and Ah Tao. The assisted-living home also gets attention, sometimes revealing social critique and other times revealing snippets of character. There’s minor social commentary here, but this is not a social drama. Instead, the film seems concerned with creating a credible, fully-realized portrait of a life. The cameos help; people like Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung show up as themselves, occupying the roles that other real-life filmmakers played in Roger Lee’s own life. The cameos are a little showy but never intrusive, except perhaps in the too-lengthy introduction to director Ning Hao (Crazy Stone). Moreover, they add an extra layer of credibility if one is aware of the actual connections or references to Roger Lee's life.
Photography from Yiu Lik-wai adds some warmth to the proceedings, as do the performances, though subtly. Neither Deanie Ip nor Andy Lau are transparent in their acting; both are opaque and layered, creating characters and establishing relationships with natural gazes, incidental dialogue and simple actions. Awards have already been given to both Ip and Lau for A Simple Life and that's understandable; these are fully-immersed performances that fully inhabit other lives, and the film echoes their efforts. Dramatic arcs are quiet yet credible, and the film proves poignant through detailed sentiment and not false sentimentality. The film might seem to lack a developing story, but the emotional thread that binds everything together is strong – a result of filmmakers and actors on the same page and sharing the same vision. A Simple Life is accomplished and true, possessing of integrity and soul, if not a heart worn on its sleeve. (Kozo, 2012)