In short, this is an all-around really good movie that you should check out if you're in one of the cities where it's playing - Boston, New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, L.A., Santa Monica, and Seattle in the U.S, with Houston being added next week; Toronto and Vancouver in Canada; presumable all-over the place in the Chinese-speaking world. If it got wider visibility, a lot of people would be touting Deannie Yip for awards later this year, she's just that good.
A few of things I quite liked but didn't get to work into the review:
(1) Along the lines of how the retirement home in the movie is occasionally just the worst example of warehousing the ugly you'll ever see, there's a great scene of New Year's celebrations in Hong Kong that is just beautiful shots of the city with fireworks going off all across the widescreen frame... And then cut to Ah Tao sitting on a couch, watching it on a crappy old tube TV. Just a further illustration of how this sort of life is a pale imitation of what the elderly had and deserve.
(2) A fun little in-joke is that the movie Roger is producing with Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung is a "Three Kingdoms" movie, and apparently Hollywood is not the only mmovie industry which is eating its own tail, as a character hears this and rolls her eyes - "again?" Making it further amusing is that Andy Lau starred in one with Sammo just a few years earlier.
(3) I found myself wondering about Roger and his family a bit. His opening narration mentions that he went to America to study at 20 and came back about ten years later, and we later find that his entire family seems to have emigrated to San Francisco. I suspect that this would be around the time of the handover, which would be an interesting bit of shading to it: Nobody in Hong Kong today would make a movie suggesting that people would rather leave home than live under Beijing's rule, but it does make for an interesting subtext, that the privileged abandoned Hong Kong while the common people like Ah Tao and the other people in the home had to fend for themselves.
(3a) I also sort of idly wondered if Roger were gay. It's pretty irrelevant to the movie, sure, but it's interesting that there are a few age-appropriate female characters in the movie that often would be paired off with him, but that doesn't happen here. Scenes with his family show him as the anomaly in not having a wife, kids, etc. And while maybe things have improved since Leslie Cheung's suicide ten years ago, I get the impression Roger's solitude might be the path of least resistance for a gay man in Hong Kong.
Or maybe Hui and company just figured that not every movie needs to be a romance and maintained focus. Either way, it's an interesting performance on Lau's part.
Tao Jie (A Simple Life)
* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 April 2012 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, Sony Digital 4K)
A Simple Life opens with a screen of text explaining how these characters got to this point in their lives, but is intriguingly silent on why its two main characters are mostly alone except for each other. That's fine; it means that the focus stays on the relationship between a woman and the man whose family she served for her entire life, and figuring out what it is.
Chung Chun-Tao (Deannie Yip Tak-Han) was orphaned when just a child, soon entering into service with a well-to-do Hong Kong family. Now, sixty years later, the only one remaining in Hong Kong is Roger (Andy Lau Tak-wah), who works in the movie business and shares a small apartment with "Ah Tao" and her cat Kaka. Just as he's returning from a business trip to Beijing, Ah Tao has a stroke, immediately retiring and planning to move into an old persons' home. Roger is not quite ready to part with someone who has been there for his entire life, and Ah Tao may eventually be grateful for that.
It's a bit odd typing the word "service" in this context for a picture that takes place in the present day, and "master" was plenty jarring when used in the film; maybe it seems less anachronistic in Hong Kong or in wealthier circles. Even if that's the case, director Ann Hui, writers Susan Chan Suk-Yin and Lee Yan-lam, and the cast get across what a profoundly strange, inherently asymmetrical relationship this can be. There are plenty of moments where Ah Tao seems to actively fight Roger and his family having any further involvement in her life; this and how she barks at another resident when he says it sounds like she has a servant's name makes it sounds like she's ashamed of a life spent subordinate to others. As the movie continues, and the audience sees other members of Roger's family, we get an impressively even-handed view of how they see each other differently - how well-earned generosity can seem patronizing and other disconnects.
Full review at EFC.