by Allan Fish
(Hong Kong 2011 118m) DVD1/2
Aka. Tao Jie
No road to the magic mountain
p Roger Lee, Andy Lau, Ann Hui d Ann Hui w Roger Lee, Susan Chan ph Nelson Yu Lik-Wai ed Chi-Leung Kwong, Manda Wai m Wing-fai Law art Albert Poon
Deannie Ip (Ah Tao), Andy Lau (Roger Lee), Paul Chun (Uncle Kin), Hui Pink Kee (Aunt Kam), Hui So-ying (Mui), Suet-Fa Kong (receptionist), Tin Leung (headmaster), Hailu Qin (Ms Choi), Wang Fuli (Roger’s mother), Sammo Hung Kan-Bo (director Hung), Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (grasshopper), Eman Lam (Carmen), Tsui Hark,
Some films are a pleasure to write about. You can just come to the keyboard and right away know what you want to say, how to say it and it just flows like taking copy from a Dictaphone. A Simple Life is not one of those films, not one of those films you can make mental notes on while watching because before you know it, the film’s over and you have no idea how to begin your piece. It’s the sort of film that makes suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – or the Hollywood mainstream c.2011 – worth all the pain. You come out, whether from the cinema or your front room, feeling ennobled, uplifted and put through the emotional wringer, all the more so because the film makes absolutely no effort to do so. Even as I type, I imagine the Hollywood version and it’s a horrifying thought.
Roger – based on the real life experience of producer and writer Roger Lee – is a film producer who lives and works in Hong Kong. Most of his family are now abroad, either on the Chinese mainland or in the US, and he lives with his seventy-something maid Ah Tao, who has looked after members of his family for six decades. One day, after making him his favourite dish, she collapses with a stroke. Visiting her in hospital she tells him, in her typical altruistic manner, that she wants to go into an old people’s home. He finds her one and there she gets to know some of the fellow inmates, but Roger comes to see her as often as filming and meeting schedules permit, even takes her to his film premiere, but it becomes clear that her condition isn’t going to get better.
At first one has misgivings about the establishment she’s being taken to, but it’s in her absence that Roger comes to realise just how much Ah Tao meant to him. His mother comes to visit her and it becomes clear that the family see her as one of their own. As indeed do the fellow inmates in time, from the old ‘headmaster’ who tries to maintain his dignity, to Hui, a fortyish woman forced into care by her dialysis needing regular care her elderly mother can no longer give her (showing how infirmity isn’t purely the affliction of the old), to old Uncle Kin, who scrounges money from patients and visitors alike which he uses on women, to the kindly but tired supervisor who tries to do the best she can and finds it hard not to get too emotionally involved.
While Roger’s family play an important part in showing how one old woman can mean so much to so many over so many generations, it’s Ah Tao’s feelings for them that reach deepest into the heart and especially how she doted on Roger and even his friends who remember her still. We know it cannot end happily, but Hui’s film doesn’t dwell on the end, preferring to show her final fall into a second stroke and emphysema as an epilogue than as the heart of the piece, so that her funeral becomes merely a rubber-stamping of what has already gone on before. And as all films that celebrate life need, it’s full of gentle moments of humour, most of them supplied by Ah Tao herself, whose selflessness and generosity are an example to make us all feel not just humbled but ashamed. It’s a splendidly directed and acted piece, with Lau perfectly understated and Deannie Ip a real treasure as Ah Tao. What lingers most, though, as often with such minimalist pieces, is the little details, such as the way Roger pulls her socks up when lying in bed nearing her end. Early on director Tsui Hark – cameoing as himself – says “shooting a film is like giving birth, the key is to see it through to the end.” In doing this, the character, director and audience cannot help being deeply personally affected.