Ann Hui’s A Simple Life, which begins a weeklong run at Facets Cinematheque on Friday, is the sort of film in which every detail feels unforced but essential. It seems to have been assembled casually from personal observation, and in a sense it was. The story—about a middle-aged bachelor devoting himself to his family’s longtime maid after she suffers a stroke—is drawn from the experience of Roger Lee, the producer and cowriter. Deanie Ip and Andy Lau, who play the maid and her caretaker, are real-life godmother and godson, which probably accounts for their easy onscreen rapport. Lau’s character works as a financial supervisor for a film company, and some of Hui’s colleagues make cameo appearances as themselves, as if to suggest there’s no division between their lives and the movies they produce. A Simple Life considers the loneliness of contemporary life and the plight of the elderly in 21st-century Hong Kong, yet its observations are too small to suggest a grand statement; its themes and melancholy subtext emerge only in retrospect.
One of Hong Kong’s most important living filmmakers, Hui often presents social issues through character dramas that work primarily as emotional storytelling. Summer Snow (1995), about a middle-class family caring for an aging relative with Alzheimer’s disease, thoroughly examined the illness between episodes of hilarious slapstick comedy. (The movie was named best picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards, as were A Simple Life and Hui’s 1982 docudrama Boat People.) In recent years Hui has focused almost exclusively on domestic stories to contemplate the nature of contemporary society: The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006) and The Way We Are (2008) both center on single, lower-middle-class women in their 60s who take menial jobs to ward off poverty. Their defenselessness against economic change suggests that the individualism of capitalist culture has alienated people from social traditions and one another.
The small observations of A Simple Life are so pointed that scenes can feel funny and sad at the same time. Shortly after Roger (Lau) checks Ah-Tao (Ip) into a nursing home, there’s an extended scene of her first meal in the communal dining hall, and it’s a quiet nightmare. An old man spills soup on himself; two others fight over food, reduced to infantile behavior by their dementia; and, in an unexpected bit of comic relief, one resident complains that another is wearing his dentures. Conversely, gentle or charming scenes leave a bitter aftertaste: when Roger leaves a business meeting early in the film, a secretary mistakes him for an air-conditioning repairman, and after the real workman shows up, Hui lingers on Roger as he realizes how little authority he commands in daily life.
This revealing moment, one of many in the film, feeds into the sense of modern-day isolation. Roger’s decision to care for Ah-Tao—paying for her room, overseeing her medical treatment—stems from loneliness as much as compassion. He isn’t very close to his family, and apparently he’s never had a serious romance. His deepest relationship seems to have been with Ah-Tao, who doted on him when he was a child and remained his personal maid through adulthood. He may have sublimated his loneliness through hard work, but as he watches Ah-Tao grow more infirm, he realizes how small his companionless life has been.
Or maybe he doesn’t. Characters in the movie never state their feelings explicitly; they’re too composed and polite. As in the late features of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (which A Simple Life often recalls), Hui asks us to guess at complex emotional states from oblique behavioral cues. And aside from Ah-Tao’s steadily diminishing health, the story offers little opportunity for convenient emotional outpourings. It progresses more as an accumulation of moments: Roger’s frequent visits to the nursing home, his all-business business trips, Ah-Tao’s interactions with the other residents. Characters are revealed through their routines and social affiliations, the way people are in real life.
By encouraging such intimacy with elderly characters, Hui emphasizes the film’s most discomforting message: that many senior citizens spend their final days without experiencing any sort of intimacy, emotional or otherwise. To drive this point home, she includes a scene of Roger reviewing the services provided by Ah-Tao’s nursing home; they’re everything one might hope for—including a choice of personal assistants to escort residents to the hospital—yet they’re itemized as if they were nothing more than dishes on a menu. Hui wants to show how ordinary people adjust to modern life and still maintain the daily flow of living. Her narrative style is so guileless it may become invisible, yet from an assortment of pinpoints she manages to create a whole universe.