Ann Hui risks the delicate balancing act of combine fantasy and reality with A Simple Life, another—and an exceedingly excellent and moving—mainstream “social message” film from this master director. On the surface the “social” seems to come from the reality—the film is based on the true story of a maid (played by Deannie Yip) who after 60 years of service to a single family across four generations suffers a stroke and is finally separated from them and put into a nursing home. From this, the film with little fuss or pointed editorializing introduces the spaces and conditions, the humans and the feelings, of the process of being sent to an institution, of getting older, getting informed about ailments and mortality, of having to be looked after, and of looking after someone whose life is going away. But I think the real challenge here comes in the fantasy of the film, which, to reiterate, is based on the true story—that the maid’s family caringly looks after the aging woman, especially by the family’s son (played with majestic simplicity by Andy Lau) who, we’re told, was essentially raised by the woman. He pays for her nursing, takes to calling her his relation and spends much of the film visiting her, taking her places, and basically dotes on her to a dedicated and loving degree that even exceeds an average filial obligation.
If this sounds too good to true it also feels it: while the woman’s condition worsens and, as can be expected, the situation at a Hong Kong nursing home is far from ideal living quarters, the degree to which she is loved and looked after and the interchanges of memories and kindnesses between her and Lau (who in real life is Yip's godson) are so affectionate and caring as to become fantastic. The maid becomes the lead; the mega-star is relegated (with spare, kind results) to serving her, and the other family members are essentially cameos. And this is the real core, I think, of the film. Despite cinematographer Yu Lik-wai’s always-amazing talent for finding the beauty, eloquence and subtleties of the world in the everyday, speaking tones through space and light in often depressing surroundings, it is utterly unreal that a woman in a wealthy family’s service for so long on an island, like Japan, with an aging population that is having trouble being cared for by the younger generations, is treated as one of the family's own. The sentimentality is thus checked by this complex limbo the film is held in, between implying all that could be missing from the woman's life and engaging emotionally with all that there is. It is a tremendously moving fantasy that for its every careful, generous and heartfelt scene reminds one that precisely what is so moving is, if not the impossibility of such humanity, then that it must be a most rare and precision thing.
This review originally appeared in our coverage for the 2011 Venice Film Festival.