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A Simple Life

Released 2011. Director: Ann Hui

ANN HUI, WITH 27 MOVIES UNDER HER BELT as one of Hong Kong’s foremost directors, is interested in capturing quiet human drama. Her films examine particular phases or situations, with a keen eye and plenty of emotional insight. A Simple Life is a picture of gentle humanity, a prism through which Hui looks at old age in the changing social landscape in the cosmopolitan city. The point of difference is it’s seen through the eyes of a woman who must be one of the last vanguards of a disappearing custom.

Doe Jie, or Sister Doe, is a maid who has become part of the family she serves since being taken in as an orphan during World War II. After serving three generations of the Leung family, the old lady is now almost alone in a small apartment as every family member has migrated except for Roger, who remains in Hong Kong as a movie producer.

Ann Hui shows us scenes of humdrum domestic life. Sister Doe goes to the market and picks her greens fastidiously. Back in the small kitchen, she cooks, then she serves. These moments, so unremarkable in themselves, are Hui’s way of illustrating a simple, quiet life of a woman whose goal in life is purely to serve. One day, Sister Doe has a stroke. She tells Roger she wants to quit her job and move into a nursing home.

This is where Ann Hui sets a contrast. Though a servant, Sister Doe had a home, a room of her own, a comfortable life and a ‘son’. Now at an aged care facility, she is one of many old people, some incapable of caring for themselves, sleeping in a tiny partitioned space as her room with little privacy.

Hui appears to be criticising the way modern society treats its oldest citizens. The home is owned by a dubious character (who turns out to be an old friend of Roger’s). It’s a sterile, mildly depressive environment where some occupants are senile, confused, and forever waiting for visits from family who never come. Gradually, Hui injects positive sentiments through Sister Doe’s encounters with her fellow residents. Life, as it turns out, isn’t all that bad in this crowded house. Sister Doe makes friends; the carers are genuinely caring; and we get acquainted with a few secondary characters in the sobering reality of old age, last chance, and the inevitability of final farewell.

The best thing about this movie is it’s neither tragedy nor melodrama. Ann Hui never exploits cheap sentiments. She’s interested in real human reactions, not manufactured script conventions and in this regard she has immense success with veteran actress Deannie Yip, who gives a naturalistic, understated performance. Sister Doe is portrayed not as a victim, just a simple old woman who always puts the needs of others before hers. There’s dignity and joy in her twilight years. The scene where Sister Doe looks through her belongings and old photos with affection and laughter is particularly heart-warming.

Sister Doe’s relationship with Roger is the main drive of the story. In essence, this is a relationship between mother and son. Roger clearly embodies the Confucian ethics of filial piety in his care for his amah. In contrast, one elderly woman at the home waits in vain for her son who never visits, not even on Chinese New Year. Andy Lau and Deannie share an impeccable chemistry. Their scenes together are superbly complementary and endearing.

As a window into the twilight months of an old woman, A Simple Life doesn’t pander or sentimentalize. It could almost be regarded as a dramatisation of a documentary on the life of a woman who lived in service to a family. A respectful, observant tribute to a beloved servant.

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