Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Ann Hui’s A Simple Life

Nursing homes are a booming business in Hong Kong, yet you still hear seniors referred to as “uncles” and “aunties.” The terms “sir” and “ma’am” just are not the same—and even those are heard less and less often here. Social and generational change might be sweeping Hong Kong (and the Mainland), but one dutiful film producer still tends to his family’s ailing servant in Ann Hui’s A Simple Life (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York and San Francisco.

Chung Chun To, preferably known as Ah To, has worked for the Leung family since the Japanese Occupation. She is content to serve Roger, her favorite of the Leung children and the only one remaining in Hong Kong. It is a quiet, uneventful life for them both, when he is not traveling to the Mainland to negotiate deals. Returning late one night he finds Ah To collapsed after a stroke. Suddenly, it will be Leung taking care of Ah To.

There are no melodramatics in Hui’s refreshingly down-to-earth and true-to-life film. Leung is a cold fish, but he requires no clichéd awakening of his conscience, immediately understanding he will have to step up to the plate for Ah To. Yet, there are plenty of awkward moments and difficult choices in store for him, such as the nursing home he places her in. Again, it is not great, but it is not a standard movie horror show. Rather, it is much like the average facility one might reluctantly accept anywhere in Hong Kong or America (and at least it is overseen by the attractive Nurse Choi, played by the up-and-coming Qin Hailu, scratching something out of the seemingly thankless role).

Instead, A Simple Life works quietly, depicting the role reversal with patience and honesty. Superstar Andy Lau’s work as Leung is remarkably assured and restrained. In a way, Deannie Ip has it easier, because she has room to “act” when portraying Ah To’s slow physical decline, but again she scrupulously maintains her dignified reserve.

Despite the serious subject matter, A Simple Life will also interest fans of Asian genre cinema, featuring many big name stars in cameo roles. In an extended sequence, Sammo Hung and Tsui Hark play themselves, hashing out a production budget with Leung. Anthony Wong also appears in a small supporting role, getting perhaps five minutes of screen time, but it is a cool five minutes.

Reportedly based co-producer-co-writer Roger Lee’s real life family retainer, A Simple Life is like a tear-jerker with too much self-respect to jerk tears. That is exactly why the payoff hits home so hard. Officially submitted by Hong Kong as its recent best foreign language Oscar contender, it might well have caught on with the Academy in a less competitive year. (Unfortunately, those are the breaks.) Happily, audiences can catch up with it now. Highly accessible, it is definitely recommended for mainstream audiences when it opens this Friday (4/13) in New York at the AMC Empire and in San Francisco at the AMC Metreon, courtesy of China Lion Entertainment.