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Year: 2011
Hong Kong
Language: Cantonese
Director: Ann Hui
Screenplay: Roger Lee
Cinematography: Yu Lik-wai
Soundscore: 罗永晖
Cast: Deanie Ip, Andy Lau
Runtime: 118 min
Trailer: on YouTube
Film’s official website: www.asimplelifemovie.com (in Chinese and English)

Seen at the sold out opening event of the Hong Kong 15 Film Festival organised by Terracotta Distribution. The film was released in UK cinemas on August 3, 2012 – you can find the screen closest to you here.

Note: I first featured the film on Trailer Weekly #4 a gazillion years ago!

There are two scenes in Táo Jiě that encapsulate nearly everything one needs to know about the film. The first occurs right after Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), a woman who has worked for the Leung family for 64 years, has a stroke. Roger (Andy Lau), the now grown-up son of the family and the only one that Ah Tao was still caring for, visits his amah (maid) in hospital. A tray of food is in front of her, but she struggles to eat, the left side of her body paralysed from the stroke, the right one unsteady and trembling. Roger has not quite grasped this yet – that Ah Tao is no longer the woman that is capable of anything and everything as before – and thinks that she is not hungry. He suggests she have at least the orange, but Ah Tao offers it to Roger instead, both still very much in their roles of maid and master. In a second scene, some time having passed, Roger takes Ah Tao, now living in a care home for the elderly, for food to a local restaurant. He orders only one set of dishes and, when they arrive at the table, places them before her. He parts the fish into smaller pieces and tells her to eat to her full enjoyment, watching over her rather than the other way around. It is a moment that would have been unimaginable a short while back, yet now reveals that they are no longer maid and master, but more like elderly mother and loving son.

The two scenes illustrate the development of the relationship between the two characters, who start out, despite the many years they have already spent together and  physical space they shared within a small apartment, as surprisingly distant to one another. As the amah is forced to retire because of the physical impairment suffered from the stroke, the distance between Ah Tao and Roger shrinks and the dynamics of their relationship changes. What is it that brings about the change? In the Q&A, Roger Lee, the real-life Roger Leung and the film’s producer, elucidated that the physical separation of his amah and himself in between visits to the care home led to them talking more, filling each other in on what they had done and what had happened in their days apart, gradually bringing them closer than the much more wordless co-existence when living together in the same space ever had.

Food, cat, Roger, Tao Jie: Life complete with happiness.

In the drama – and presumably also in real life – the strengthened bond between Ah Tao and Roger is subtle, the love they have for one another is nearly always expressed indirectly. Food, for example, becomes a central and highly symbolic element, demonstrating how much they care for one another. It is not only parting-the-fish scene that illustrates this, but there are plenty of others, some threading through the film and illuminating the long-time connection from past to present between the protagonists: Early on Roger requests ox tongue for his next meal. Ah Tao admonishes him as it is too unhealthy a dish, yet it is the last meal she lovingly prepares as his amah and it is also what Roger later pulls out of the freezer to share with several childhood friends (one of them played by an actual friend of the film producer that knew the real Ah Tao). They fondly recall moments of when they were children – many of them being food-related memories -, the scene culminating in a touching phone call to Ah Tao at the care home. The words “We cherish you” may never be uttered explicitly, yet reverberate loudly in the conversation.

It may be the real story that is behind Táo Jiě that makes it so moving. The film is a loving tribute to much a cherished person (in reference back to the lonely, single man portrayed in the film, in the Q&A Roger Lee responded that Ah Tao was the only woman right for him), but it also feels real because it is realistic: Painful truths are not glossed over, things are not made prettier or better, whether it is the shabbiness of the old people’s home or the death that must be faced at the end. Many scenes are anecdotal and characters are based on actual people. The Don Juan of the care home did indeed exist and the care home supervisor, whose loneliness becomes very tangible, was modelled on a divorced mother.

Role reversal.

No review of Táo Jiě can be complete with some words about its lead actors, Deanie Ip and Andy Lau. Godmother and godson in real life, Táo Jiě reunites two of Hong Kong’s leading actors on the screen for the first time since 1999 (黑馬王子/Hēimǎ wángzǐ/Prince Charming). Although there are plenty of other characters in the film (some family members of Leung’s, the other residents of the care home) it is both the casting itself – Ip and Lau are perfectly matched – and their superb portrayal of Ah Tao and Roger respectively that makes this film what it is. Their performances have been lauded widely, with Deanie Ip in particular receiving many accolades for her role: Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Horse Awards (Taiwan), the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards, the Asian Film Awards and the Chinese Film Media Awards as well as the Salento Award at the Hong Kong Salento International Film Festival. Andy Lau’s list of honours isn’t quite as long, but no less respectable as he also received Best Actor awards at the Golden Horse Awards and the Hong Kong Film Awards, as well as the People’s Choice for Favorite Actor at the Asian Film Awards, plus multiple nominations at various festivals.

Overall Verdict: Superb and touching, but be sure to bring a box of tissues with you.

Rating: 9.5/10

Bonus Bits:

  • The cinematography is by Yu Lik-wai, who is perhaps best know for his work with Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke. I featuret two of Jia’s films in Trailer Weeklies #34 and #35, Yu did the cinematography for both of them.
  • An article on Ann Hui and Deanie Ip at yesasia.com, talking about “The Meeting of Two Hong Kong Cinema Legends”.
  • I have attended quite a few film Q&A’s but this one with Roger Lee, the film’s producer whose family story Táo Jiě is, was one of the most enlightening I have experienced. Roger Lee’s answers added yet more personal insight to the story, including some explanations for scenes that some viewers found difficult (e.g. Lee’s rationale behind choosing to go on a business trip when knowing that Ah Tao would very likely die during his absence).
  • I will confess: I nearly cried the whole way through, which was a bit exhausting. In fact, I was half-wished I had watched the film on DVD at home so as to pause it and take a break!
  • Eastern Kicks’ review of A Simple Life.
  • Eastern Kicks’ exclusive interview with Roger Lee.
  • There are plenty of other reviews available, from the New York Times to The Hollywood Reporter.

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