As I may have mentioned at some point on the blog, I am currently attending graduate school for library and information sciences, with a special focus in digital preservation. As such, I am afforded the very welcomed opportunity to volunteer at the Moving Images Research Collection in South Carolina where I primarily work on viewing and cataloguing police training videos. However, one of the side project I have had the pleasure of engaging in focuses on Chinese film, particularly helping with a conference on topics relating to Chinese film. This weekend, as many may know, marked the beginning of the Chinese New Year, in which MIRC, as well as University of South Carolina's Confucius Institute put on a Chinese Film Festival at the local independent theater, in which they showed a variety of different films from the past few years in Chinese film, most notably A Simple Life a film of great stature in China, as well as one directed by Ann Hui a prominent Chinese filmmaker who also happens to be a woman. I came into this film only being aware that Ann Hui was a bit of an art house icon in China and was only beginning to make her name on a global market, however, I had been assured by many fans and experts in Chinese film that she was a big deal and that her films were well worth exploring. Going into A Simple Life, I assumed that the film would be quite cinematic and terribly heart-wrenching considering the films narrative thread, however, what I did not expect was for the film to be a perfected lesson in poetic realism. Hui's film moves through a narrative space with equal parts serenity and solemnity providing what could easily be described as the perfect hybridization of the stylistic methods of the late Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu and prominent Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai. A Simple Life clearly went under the radar in 2011/2012, competing with a decidedly political set of foreign films, many of which considered the nature and effects of war. While A Simple Life certainly incorporates a heavy amount of comedy in its execution, one would be a fool to miss the very serious commentaries existing within the narrative, as well as one of the most envisioned non-traditional family narratives ever considered.
A Simple Life centers on Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) an aging maid for the wealthy director Roger (Andy Lau) whose bachelor lifestyle has never really come undone, particularly considering that Tao clearly exists as a maternal figure to the not-so-young man. When Tao suffers an unexpected stroke Roger is left to reconsider his role as a caregiver to an individual who has provided him so much love over the entirety of his life, in fact, Tao has been the servant to his family for some sixty odd years, in what apparently began as a political revolution. Despite his considerably busy schedule as a director, Roger attempts to care hand and foot for Tao, who is bothered by this and demands that she be placed into a retirement home, even against Roger's concerns, knowing fully the sleazy nature of such establishments. Fortunately, Roger is able to place Tao into a home ran by a former stuntman and assures that she is taken care of financially and emotionally. No amount of careful oversight on the part of Roger manages to block Tao from experiencing the rather dreadful state of being elderly in contemporary China, whether it be encounters with half-assed charity outreach groups, or with frustrated caretakers who become physically aggressive with problematic patients. Tao serves as sort of angel of the retirement home in her gentle demeanor sharing her food and money with any and everyone, even in instances when the money goes to sinful behavior, or is greatly under underappreciated. The realization that she will slowly die lies in the back of Tao's mind and is only reaffirmed by witnessing other members of the home pass along, even one of its youngest members Mui (So-yin Hui) whose inability to afford proper dialysis technology leads to her demise. Knowing that the time Tao has remaining is fleeting, Roger takes her on many trips outside of the retirement home, even bringing her as a date to a big film premiere, as well as along to a Chinese New Year celebration, in which she is able to see her only grandchild who is Chinese-Korean. Of course, sickness gets the best of Tao and she passes on, but not without having a clear impact on even the most troubled of persons. In the films closing moments, one is led to believe that her kind spirit lingers on well beyond her passing.
I am not an expert in Chinese culture, nor do I know much about their films beyond being aware of some of the mainland works that were huge in the 90's and being a die hard fan of John Woo's Hardboiled. Yet, I am rather aware of the issue of aging as it relates to China, one in which the elderly community is pushed aside and nearly forgotten in the face of modernity. The fact, that many of the characters depicted in the film are elderly folks who are pushed aside does not just ring true for contemporary China, but is, in fact, the case for most of the world, making the universality of A Simple Life land almost immediately. It is quite easy to relate to Roger who clearly longs to be a close person to his maternal maid, but is also forced away from her in order to fulfill works requirements, most people have a family member for with whom they are close but a variety of factors block their unity. Another element of the film that stands out its the way in which Tao is clearly far to aware and capable to be placed in the bizarre world of retirements homes where bodies are pushed aside and disability is loathed. The nurturing nature of Tao kicks into gear immediately and she essentially becomes another nurse, helping persons eat their food or sew a button back onto a coat. Tao desired to go to the home to avoid being a burden to Roger, however, the same acts that caused her sickness in the first place seem to occupy her time within the retirement home, much to the disdain of Roger, but to the welcome embrace of the weary employees of the home. Of course, this story is rather unusual in that Roger does often visit Tao, much more than perhaps she thinks he should, yet no amount of unity and bonding can provide Tao an escape from the drudgery and despondent world of the home and much of this come to fruition during a particularly lonely night at the home. It demands viewers to consider the very real effects of loneliness, even in a temporary state, although Hui makes it clear that for most persons the loneliness is a long forming experience. Perhaps it is much more an advocation for create family where possible than a condemning of retirement home culture, but both narratives exist and deserve equal consideration.
Key Scene: Tao and Roger talking after his movie preview party will go down as one of the sweetest moments I will ever encounter in a film and is guaranteed to yank at your heartstrings.
While it will be near impossible to see in theaters, an impending bluray release is certainly the way to go. It is a film more than well worth owning.