When Hong Kong maid Ah Tao (Deannie Yip) suffers a stroke, she decides to leave her job and move into an old people’s home. Roger (Andy Lau) – the youngest member of the family that Ah Tao served for over 60 years – feels obliged to her, and their relationship slowly changes.
A Simple Life tells the story of it’s title remarkably well. Ah Tao has lived a simple life, and it seems that she has found it fulfilling, but as soon as the relationship between Ah Tao and Roger – that of servant and employer – is established, it changes, in fact the roles of the two lead characters are completely reversed. Ah Tao looked after Roger all his life, and it is revealed throughout the film that she is closer to him than his mother, even though he is dismissive of her to begin with. As soon as Ah Tao loses her independence, Roger finds himself caring for her, even though she has the means to look after herself.
Deannie Yip and Andy Lau give gentle and understated performances throughout the film. Their relationship evolves before the audience’s eyes, but this is largely done without the use of dialogue. Director Ann Hui allows the change in the lives of her characters to be shown and not told. Even though both characters are guarded, the more time they spend together in this new relationship, the more they warm toward one another.
There are moments of tragedy; the nursing home that Ah Tao moves into is less a home than a giant hostel. The staff may mean well, but the audience recoils from the lack of privacy and humiliation shown on screen. As time goes on, it becomes clear that Ah Tao’s presence in the home changes those around her, but it feels like a sorry end for a woman who spent her entire life caring for others. There are also moments of great tenderness, including a phone conversation between Roger’s childhood friends and Ah Tao, as they reminisce about the past and the wonder of Ah Tao’s cooking.
Unlike Michael Haneke’s Amour, A Simple Life is not the story of an illness that destroys the family, instead, the illness actually beings people closer together. There is no doubt that illness and death are still tragic in the film, but director Hui treats the potentially depressing subject matter with a light touch that allows Ah Tao’s final days to be filled with dignity. That said, at times it feels as though the film is meandering through the final months of the relationship between Ah Tao and Roger without any real sense of direction.
In all, A Simple Life may wander slightly and the pacing is uneven, but it is a simple story, simply told. A Simple Life is a gentle film, but deeply affecting.