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What follows are some initial observations of A Simple Life. I hope they create an idea of how complex and mysterious this deceptively easy movie is.
1) What motivates Roger (Andy Lau) to devote himself to Ah Lao (Deannie Ip)? Yes, he’s known her since he was born and she took a maternal interest in him when he was a boy. But Roger’s attention seems almost impossibly compassionate. He pays for all of Ah Lao’s treatment at her nursing home and visits her regularly during her stay—the latter being all the more remarkable since he’s a successful movie producer who often travels for work. There are numerous hints, however, at Roger’s deep dissatisfaction. At 50, he remains unmarried, and he doesn’t seem to have any close friends or family ties apart from Ah Lao.
This is a strange role for Lau, one of Hong Kong’s biggest movie stars and one of the most charismatic living actors. The part requires him to turn his expressive qualities inward, and he adds to the characterization by using his likability as a mask. Roger’s loath to talk about his true feelings (even his eulogy for Ah Lao at the end of the film is all business), and he keeps his social interactions smooth and bland. But as the movie goes on, there are more and more signs of his loneliness. In one of the longest scenes, he and Ah Lao grill each other about why neither ever got married. Each one laughs off the other’s interrogation and, by extension, his own disappointment. It’s possible that, for both characters, domestic devotion provides a healthy surrogate for romantic love.
2) Whose life does the title refer to? It would seem to be Ah Lao’s, as it was spent almost entirely in domestic service, unfettered by family bonds of her own. Yet Roger’s life is curiously simple for a movie producer. He lives in a small apartment, dresses like a public school teacher, and doesn’t seem to have any hobbies. He doesn’t even like movies all that much—anyhow, he never discusses them when he isn’t at work. A Simple Life is full of cameos from luminaries of the Hong Kong film world, including director Tsui Hark and actor/choreographer Sammo Hung (this may be the Funny People of Hong Kong dramas), and their consistent modesty becomes something like a running gag. It feels as though the entire business of movies has been recast in terms of Ah Lao’s work ethic. The film’s few conversations about cinema focus on concrete financial matters, the housekeeping side of artistic production. In fact, this is one of the oddest depictions of filmmaking I’ve seen in a movie.
3) What is Ah Lao doing with her hands? At times, she’s making birdlike gestures; at others, she’s fumbling to illustrate some ineffable thought. One of the most discomforting notions about aging is the thought that we may lose control of our own bodies, that our very individuality will be compromised through no fault of our own. A Simple Life doesn’t shy from this sad fact: the scenes at the nursing home are so vividly detailed (in matters of incontinence, false teeth, the sexuality of the elderly) that no one could accuse the film of sentimentality. And Ip refuses to overstate Ah Lao’s infirmity or her courage in recovering from her stroke.
Even when A Simple Life isn’t directly confronting the ugly truths about aging, Hui keeps them in our minds through her considered mise-en-scene. She often shoots the interiors of the nursing home at low angles, setting the characters against the drab-colored ceiling; and she utilizes the shallow focus so common to digital video (the film was shot on the RED One camera) to suggest a world closing in on the characters. Her aesthetic creates a chilling counterpoint to the characters’ warm behavior. It speaks to realities that the characters—and presumably, all us contented working folk—would just as soon avoid.