A Simple Life (Tao Jie): Venice Film Review

Overlong tale of a Hong Kong family’s ailing maid resists excessive sentimentality.

Hong Kong veteran director Ann Hui brings together two of its major stars, Deanie Ip and Andy Lau, for a crowd-pleasing drama.

A Simple Life is loaded with cameos by celebrities from Hong Kong’s action-packed cinema including martial-arts legends Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung.

But, as the title implies, the movie is a world away from its violent extravaganzas. Even so, this is one of the more mainstream movies to compete at a major European festival this year and could resonate with older audiences in its native Hong Kong. Film festivals looking for undemanding crowd-pleasers will want to check it out, even at its currently excessive 118-minute running time – much too long for what is indeed a pretty "simple" affair.

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This latest offering from veteran director Ann Hui (best known for 1990’s The Swordsman and 2006’s The Postmodern Life of My Aunt) reunites Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau with his real-life godmother Deanie Ip, the latter one of the doyennes of HK cinema. The wry, low-key story centers on the bond between seventysomething servant Ah Tao (Ip, actually only 63) and Roger (Lau), a production-accountant specializing in the movie business – his presence at various meetings and premieres providing the opportunity for all those star cameos.

Ah Tao has, as we are informed in a blizzard of expository opening captions, served Roger’s family for 60 years -- raising the children being one of her many duties --  and he is the last to remain in Hong Kong. When Ah Tao’s health starts to deteriorate, it is Roger’s turn to do the looking-after.

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He pays for her to move into a senior-citizens’ care facility. This being super-crowded Hong Kong, the facility is right in the middle of a city street, making it easy for the residents, who range widely in terms of age, health and mental alertness, to receive visitors and take a chaperoned stroll around the bustling metropolis. While the facility isn’t necessarily the most luxurious or cozy of environments, it seems to suit Ah Tao well enough now that her working life is over.

Based on actual people and events, Susan Chan and Roger Lee’s script is a bittersweet, unmistakably heartfelt look at ties between people who aren’t blood relations but who have in effect a mother/son bond.

The film is a pretty smooth technical package with crisply high-definition cinematography from Yu Lik Wai --  best known for his rather more ambitiously challenging work with Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-Ke -- a consistent plus. His clear, direct images suit a movie which thankfully eshews the easy route of heavy-handed tear-jerking: Ah Tao, a sparky, no-nonsense old bird, would surely have approved.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Bona Entertainment; Focus Films Limited; Sil-Metropole Organisation
Cast: Deanie Ip, Andy Lau, Wang Fuli, Qin Hailu
Director: Ann Hui
Screenwriters: Susan Chan, Roger Lee
Producers: Pui Wah Chan, Ann Hui, Roger Lee
Executive producers: Yu Dong, Andy Lau, Song Dai
Director of photography: Yu Lik Wai
Production designer: Albert Poon
Music: Law Wing Fai
Editors: Kong Chi Leung, Manda Wai
Sales: Distribution Workshop, Hong Kong
No rating, 118 minutes