If you’ve had an at least somewhat respectable upbringing, you’ve probably been told before to respect your elders, consider how the elderly are marginalized in society, and not to forget that old people were once young like you. And though this theme pops up from time to time in any mainstream culture, it has special relevance in Asia, where filial piety is of utmost social importance.
It is this universal theme that largely carries A Simple Life, directed by Ann Hui, a gentle and unpretentious Hong Kong drama based on the true story of Hong Kong film producer Roger Lee. But of course, more than just a theme, it is a story, and like its title says, a simple story about a simple life, told through the relationship between central characters Roger, played by Andy Lau, and his ailing family maid, Sister Peach, played by the subtly excellent Deanie Ip. And though the story’s message is fairly obvious and quite traditional in nature, don’t be afraid it will lecture you; you’ll probably be enjoying the film’s genuine wit and warmth too much to notice.
The film’s main perspective is Peach, loyal maid of two generations to Roger and his middle-class family, all of whom are now residing in the United States except for Roger. Though in his fifties, Roger is still unmarried, with only Peach to look after his domestic caretaking in his Hong Kong apartment while he lives a busy life as film producer. After Peach suffers a stroke and requires rehabilitation and care, Roger finds himself in the uncharted territory of how to care for himself, as well as how to care about the mother figure, though maid, who raised him since infancy. In her illness, Peach must spend time in a retirement care center, a very shameful place to send one’s elderly parents in traditional Chinese custom, and also very contradictory to Peach’s headstrong sense of self-reliance. Roger in his propriety wonders if he is doing the right thing by letting her stay there. After all, she’s a servant, but kind of like family, too, right?
It is worth noting that in its examination of servitude and its complicated combination of subordination and intimacy, A Simple Life is comparable to the recently Oscar-nominated The Help, also highly talked about these days (though obviously A Simple Life is without the race issue). But unlike the brightly colored and overly-dramatized Help, A Simple Life is real and without affectation, not preaching or ramming its message through, but instead providing a glance into the rhythms and challenges of an unglamorous life. Its camera angles are blunt and candid, dialog at times very scarce, and music is used very sparingly, only serving to occasionally accentuate the emotionality of short moments. It’s not unlike the true life of a maid or the resident of a retirement home, but nonetheless engaging. This is no doubt a testament to Hui’s strength as a filmmaker, relying on realism to tell a real story, and omitting the grandiose melodrama all too common in typical Hollywood scripting.
In the time Peach spends at the care center, we get an honest glimpse at the decadence of life there, but also a fun host of supporting characters, who live through their own ups and downs, sometimes to comedic, and sometimes to tragic effect. But Hui does not ask us to feel sorry for them or for Peach; she unapologetically presents them as they are, letting your own sense of pathos do the work if it wants to.
In the end, the story’s core remains the relationship between Roger and Peach, as soon the pretense of the maid-employer relationship fades, and Roger desires more and more to care for Peach with sonly commitment. Peach in turn shows the motherliness and strength she always has, even as her health continues to decline.
Lau delivers a solid performance in a role that is not easy, despite its simplicity, playing an honest character, but also reserved and at times unsure. But in fact the real star is Ip, playing a character fairly older than herself. Without delivering any long monologues or hardly raising her voice, she commands viewer attention with each expression, posture, and sentiment: fragile, perhaps, but brave, and never self-pitying.
A Simple Life is far from big-budget, popcorn-chomping entertainment, and may bore the less conscientious members of the crowd. But even they will probably find something to like in this universally appreciable and sincere film. Be sure to bring your parents along or even maid, if you have one. After seeing the film, you might have the urge to show them just a touch more respect.