Miles Ahead: Ann Hui’s A Simple Life and My Way
Now playing in San Francisco is Ann Hui’s A Simple Life, which was the number one film at the local box office when I was in Hong Kong last month. The film’s popularity was just rewarded at the Hong Kong Film Awards, where it won Best Picture Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay statues, adding to a slew of other accolades from the Golden Horse Awards, the Hong Kong Film Society, the Venice Film Festival, and many more. It’s an outstanding film that deserves all of the attention it’s been getting, and it represents director Hui at her best.
The film follows the relationship between domestic servant Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) and Roger (Andy Lau), her long-time employer. Ah Tao has worked for Roger’s family for three generations over several decades, caring for the children, cooking, and cleaning. Roger, a successful screenwriter, lives with Ah Tao in his family’s flat in Hong Kong after the rest of his family has migrated to the U.S. After Ah Tao suffers a stroke she decides to retire and Roger helps her to move to an old folks’ home in a former bank, with the elderly residents living in the former cubicles.
Hui’s sure directorial hand crafts what might have been an overwrought tearjerker into a film with emotionally honest core. Shooting digitally in modest locations Hui simply captures the quotidian life of her protagonists, which allows the complexities of their relationship to shine through. Without lapsing into sentimentality or melodrama she manages to evoke a deeply emotional response, demonstrating the value of directorial restraint over bombast.
Andy Lau is quite good, although the movie takes pains to downplay his movie-star gorgeousness. At one point he’s mistaken for a repairman and another time a cabbie, but his perfect jawline and aquiline nose belie those conceits. As evidenced by her collection of Best Actress awards, Deanie Ip as Ah Tao is also outstanding. She also dresses down, with a plain-Jane haircut and dowdy cotton shirt and trousers disguising her glamour. Lau and Ip’s chemistry is excellent and believable and results in several truly affecting moments.
Anthony Wong, in red nail polish and a dramatically fluffy scarf, is amusing as the landlord of the rest home and Chapman To makes a brief cameo as a dentist. The denizens of the old-folks home are played by a who’s who of senior Hong Kong actors including Paul Chun, Helena Law Lan and many others.
The movie comments on the formation of families outside of traditional family structures. Both Roger and Ah Tao’s relationship and the bonds Ah Tao forms with the senior home residents replicate family and stress that kinship is not the exclusive domain of blood ties. This is emphasized by the neglectful relationship between one of the residents and her absent son, as well as another woman whose family abandoned her to assisted living in the senior home.
The film also makes some interesting points about class divisions. Although Roger and Ah Tao are clearly very fond of each other they remain distanced as master and servant. Ah Tao continually insists on staying in her place as a servant, refusing money from her former employer and only reluctantly joining a family picture. Her room in the family flat apparently doubles as the laundry room.
Hui’s naturalistic filmmaking style is in full force, with the film’s mis-en-scene seamlessly meshing with my real-life afternoon walk through Wanchai. Seeing it in Hong Kong the film also took on more meaning for me, since in many middle and upper class families there domestic servants are the norm. Hui’s film does an excellent job dissecting the complexities of the master-servant relationship and filtering them through the realities of human emotion.
At the Hong Kong International Film Festival I saw another Ann Hui movie, My Way, which is a 20-minute piece in Beautiful, a four-part omnibus sponsored by the HKIFF, and which just went live on youku.com today (it’s already had more than 1 million hits and has spawned a great debate about transgendered people in the comments section). Like A Simple Life, My Way focuses on ordinary people going through dramatic changes. In a case of extreme anti-typecasting, Francis Ng plays a transgendered woman on the eve of sex-reassignment surgery. His past roles in hypermasculine crime flicks like The Mission and Exiled dramatically underscore the intertwined nature of gender identity and confounds expectations of clear-cut gender roles—if Francis Ng can convincingly portray a man who wants to become a woman, then that kernal of femaleness must lie within every male.
Since Ng’s character is a man dressed as a woman, it’s fine that his sleek black silk dress, stockings and pumps don’t quite disguise his muscular arms and broad shoulders. Francis more than compensates for his still-male physicality by his female gestures and expressions, embodying the duality of his pre-op transsexual character–he’s completely convincing in his gender-switching role.
The short film captures an impressive range of emotions in its brief running time, in no small part due to Francis’ intense and vulnerable rendition of a person trying to cope with difficult decisions. Jade Leung is also excellent as his bitter and estranged wife coming to grips with her husband’s transformation. A small but significant character, Ng and Leung’s adolescent son, has a particularly poignant and moving moment. After his father’s surgery, the son receives a text message announcing the operation’s success. Hui shows both the wife and son’s reactions—the wife weeps, while the son quietly accepts the news.
Like A Simple Life, the film also looks at the formation of familial ties outside of the bonds of blood kin, with Ng’s character supported by a circle of other transgendered women who are more caring than her supposed family members. As with many Hui films, there are no clear villains or heroes, just regular people dealing with stressful circumstances as best they can. Sweet and moving, this film captures the pain and joy of a difficult situation. Francis Ng is fearless in his vulnerable rendering of a fragile yet strong character who must make the difficult decision to break from societal expectations in order to find personal happiness.
Here’s the link to My Way in its entirety on youku.com.
A Simple Life now playing:
Entry filed under: a simple life, andy lau tak-wah, ann hui, anthony wong, francis ng, hong kong, movies. Tags: a simple life, andy lau, ann hui, deanie ip, francis ng, hong kong film awards, hong kong films, my way.