For me, realism is an ugly word.
Mostly, this is because commenting on a lack of ‘realism’ is like a get-out clause for people who want to slam fantastical fiction, but are unable to think of a more valid criticism. Instead of commenting on narrative flow, story structure or character development, they choose to poo-poo aspects of a story that actually reveal creative ambition. Unreality is not a negative trait. Hell, it’s almost the opposite. I know about reality. I have to live here. In fact so do you, so tell me: is it really all that fun?
For those of you shaking your heads right now, prepare to be vindicated, because A Simple Life, today’s review topic, is a very realistic movie. It is also decidedly not fun.
A Simple Life is a film about a relationship. Roger (Andy Lau) is a film producer, living in Hong Kong while working in mainland China. Ah Tao (Deannie Yip) is Roger’s family’s maid. The family itself has emigrated to the USA, leaving Ah Tao only Roger to care for. Until, that is, one night, when Roger returns to his house to find Ah Tao unconscious, having suffered a stroke. She recovers, but is severely weakened, so Roger takes it on himself to look after her for a change.
This might at first sound like a bonding-through-adversity tale, but that’s not it at all. Ah Tao and Roger are already bonded before the film starts, after a long lifetime shared. Ah Tao apparently spoiled the young Roger rotten, going behind his parents’ back to get him film magazines and soft drinks, and their mutual affection has endured since then. They aren’t bosom buddies exactly. The difference in their lifestyles and social status makes some awkwardness inevitable. But nevertheless, these two are family, and at its core, A Simple Life is about watching that familial bond in action.
Admittedly, this does make for a vaguely compelling experience. Sometimes the film is a hair’s breadth from dullness, and I found myself staring at the DVD player timer, wondering how much more to go. But at other times, the film proves charming, and even funny. Lau is good with deadpan comedy, and the affection on display in some of his interactions with Ah Tao might win a smile from a stone.
However it is Yip’s performance that is more noticeably impressive. Her role calls, not only for emotional flexibility, but for physical artifice as well. It is a challenge, but one Yip proves well able to meet. Emotionally, I felt she was at her best acting against Fuli Wang as Roger’s mother. The awkwardness of their encounters, as Ah Tao’s illness brings down the social barriers between them, was palpable. Yip also achieves much on the physical side. In particular, the degeneration of her walk into a terrible, paralytic shuffle, really drives home the impact of Ah Tao’s stroke.
But despite all this, once the credits rolled, I found A Simple Life left little impression on me. The sheer lack of drama leaves it an annoyingly weightless film.
This is not to say I wish, oh, that about halfway through A Simple Life, Ah Tao suddenly has to fight ninjas or something (though that would have been interesting). Many films have a similar structure to A Simple Life, eschewing the straightforward conflicts of the average yarn. Rampart, that cop movie with Woody Harrelson in it, is a good, earlier-this-year example. What set that apart from A Simple Life though, was its sense of purpose. Rampart may not have had a plot per-se, but David Brown’s headlong dive towards self-destruction gives the film dramatic propulsion, something A Simple Life lacks.
See, Ah Tao may be well-acted, but as a character, she has no purpose. She is at the centre of the film, but she is never moving towards anything. Her life, in essence, is waiting: waiting to have that inevitable second stroke, and eventually, to die. And because this is what she is doing, the audience is stuck waiting too. Waiting and waiting for these miserable things to happen to her.
Not fun right?
Well yes, and yet it also happens to be depressingly accurate. At Ah Tao’s stage of health, life tends to become just one jerky, downward slide towards death. That’s not to say it’s devoid of fun or interesting things, or that it’s impossible to have goals at that stage. It’s just a conclusion once ignorable, is now plainly visible. And Ah Tao, in the face of that conclusion, and her physical fragility, essentially just gives up. The result is A Simple Life presents the experience of extreme old age as nothing more than a wait for the reaper.
This is realistic. But it makes for an experience I cannot recommend.