Rooted in the metaphorical substance which nourishes the soil of the vast majority of Chinese and Hong Kong texts, A Simple Life is composed of subtle and unspoken feeling.
A Simple Life tells the story of an ageing housekeeper, Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), who has worked for the same family for over sixty years. When Ah Tao suffers a stroke, her current employer, Roger (Andy Lau), gradually realises the lifetime commitment Ah Tao made to him and his family. Stories of Ah Tao’s care and devotion begin to seep into the film’s diegesis and Roger’s consciousness. As a result, their roles are reversed and he begins to dedicate large parcels of his time and money to her care.
When Ah Tao first arrives at the care home Roger has organised for her, Ann Hui’s spatial configuration is jaw-achingly depressing. The flimsy walls inside are adjoined to form little boxes that constitute the rooms for each patient. As the camera lifts above Ah Tao’s head, the all-white walls mimic the layout of an impersonal call-centre with the sterile feel of a hospital unit. Little, old Ah Tao, subsumed in a new insignificance, swallows her sadness.
Injected between the narrative sequences of Ah Tao’s waning health, stills of Hong Kong’s deteriorating urban landscape create a metaphorical parallel to her situation – the entrapment of surrounding walls and the gradual deterioration of appearance and soul. Landscape and portrait coincide to create a film that offers a true portrait of humanity.
In the final scenes the camera lingers on a brickwall covered in branches. In the wake of the aged autumn leaves, which have been whipped off by the wind, new bright green leaves sprout across the arms of branches. The solid brick structure supports the cycle of natural degradation and new growth simultaneously – with Confucianism in mind, the visual says much more than words could.
A Simple Life is quietly provoking, intimating a constantly teary-eyed state but leaving room only for a single, ambiguous tear at the end.
A Simple Life, dir. Ann Hui (2011, Hong Kong)