A Simple Life (Hong Kong, 2011)

Winner of four awards at the 68th Venice International Film Festival and with lead actress Deanie Ip breaking new ground for Asian cinema by being the first Hong Kong woman to take home the prestigious Volpi Cup, director Ann Hui’s 2011 drama has also earned numerous accolades for both herself and Ip, not least being a Lifetime Achievement award for Hui at the the 6th Asian Film Awards and both a Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Award for co-star Andy Lau. Not released in its native country or internationally on any scale until 2012, A Simple Life hit local shores with a hefty weight of awards and fanfare to its name and an almost overwhelming amount of positive reviews- could hype this strong, for the casual viewer, be to its detriment ?

Describing exactly what happens in A Simple Life is difficult. Characters age, characters talk. Some characters are debilitated and some pass away and actual plot points are superfluous- almost unnecessary. Where the film works is in its time-capsule format. How the film could be described is that it follows the aging years of Ah Tao, played by Deanie Ip, a servant to the Leung family for sixty years and who now, in her elder years, is cared for and lives with Roger (Andy Lau) the young master of the Leung family. What follows is a string of everyday, human dramatics- delicate feelings, small nuances and real emotion. The tone of the film is almost anti-cinematic – whilst the film embraces its cold, sparse but beautiful cinematography, its dialogue and main events are all very low-key. Day-to-day proceedings of characters warm the film with intimacy.  A slow bonding with the main players and a grip on their role in each others’ lives and what they mean to each other is the real highlight of the film.

Deanie Ip absolutely stuns, 64 years of age at the time of filming and with a veteran performance that strikes in its simplicity and power, with so little, to evoke sympathy and emotion. Lau delivers again, another solid performance from an actor who has come leaps and bounds in terms of skill and growth in the the last ten years. Aside from the principles, familiar faces such as Anthony Wong, Paul Chun (in a particularly sweet role) and Chapman To pop up, along with small cameos from both Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung, but even their presence never overshadows or breaks up the constant, even subdued, flow of the story. Restraint is key, and this is how Ann Hui directs.  Her best films being small looks into the lives of others and this being no different. Her sparse direction with some truly gorgeous shots of inner-city landscapes and her ability in capturing the fragility and inner-souls of the cast are breathtaking.

As a commentary on the elderly and the plight of being the care provider of someone in a position who more often or not needs constant help and support, the film touches the heartstrings in ways that are real and not forced. Ah Tao never breaks down and curses the earth for being old – Roger never screams and shouts, doubting his position as a care provider and, as the film unfolds, no small character arcs or plot points threaten to break up the two aside from aging process itself. No massive events, no melodramatic genre trappings, no overwhelming hysterics ever get in the way of the tender relationship between the two leads and feeling the genuine affection in their lives for each other is a big part of the film’s appeal.

To finalize, A Simple Life does not feel overlong, does not pander to its audience, nor feel bleak or over-the-top. Whether the film deserves its numerous accolades is not for me to decide, but the film offers great performances, has a big heart, is very touching and at times, funny. It may be off-putting to some viewers that the film is a nearly 2-hour, low-key drama, but A Simple Life dazzles with its almost transparent effectiveness to move and emote. When all is said and done and the inevitable happens, there is no fanfare, no emotional gut-punch, its just the same as it ever was: life happening and characters living through it, and as it feels for many moments throughout the film…

…”Reunions and partings are equally hard.”


Tom Kent-Williams is a writer, reviewer and co-host at the Podcast On Fire Network currently residing in Birmingham, England. He has been in love with Asian cinema since seeing Akira for the first time and has a slight man-crush on Chow Yun-fat. Hong Kong cinema floats his boat big time, along with synthpop, classic gaming and cups of tea in large mugs.