Between the Museum of Chinese in America catching fire and the whole Coronavirus, this has been a rather nasty Lunar New Year. So, how about something a little nice this week? A movie about…uh…accepting one’s mortality?
Chung Chun-Tao, also known as Ah Tao, is in her seventies. She has been working as a servant for the Leung family since she was very young. The Leung family left her in Hong Kong when they moved to America. Roger, part of the third of four generations of Leungs, returned ten years later, and Ah Tao has lived with him ever since, doing his shopping, cooking, and housekeeping. Roger is a movie producer and is frequently away. These days, he takes business trips to the mainland, working on yet another action movie based on The Three Kingdoms.
Ah Tao is doing her daily work around the apartment when she starts feeling strange. By the time Roger returns from Beijing in the evening, she cannot come to greet him. She has had a stroke and is taken by ambulance to the hospital. After going to a bank and being mistaken for the air conditioner repairman, Roger visits Ah Tao at the hospital. She is eating in bed and seems to have trouble moving her left arm. Actually, she is not really eating her meal, either, which Roger points out. He also points out that she would most likely be discharged in a couple of days, but will have to return for physical therapy to regain most of her movement. She will have to watch her diet in the future; somewhat ironic that she had said the same thing to him before he left for Beijing. Roger is thinking about hiring a maid to keep Ah Tao company. Ah Tao, instead, wants Roger to call his mother in San Francisco to tell her that she is retiring and wishes to move to an old people’s home.
Roger goes to one old people’s home nearby, which turns out to be run by one of his old friends. This man, called Grasshopper, congratulates Roger on his successes before saying that he has made quite a profit investing in this old folks home and its various branches around Hong Kong. While Grasshopper seems to exude an aura of cynical amusement at everything, he seems genuinely impressed that Roger is doing this for his maid, so he gives Roger a discount.
When Ah Tao arrives at the facility, she meets the supervisor, a young woman named Choi. Choi guides her inside (Ah Tao does not want to be helped, nor does she want any assistance other than her cane) and to one of the few single rooms. Ah Tao seems apprehensive, but turns down Choi’s offer for further help.
It is dinner time and Ah Tao observes the other elderly people with an expression that seems like a mix of anxiety and disgust. The woman next her tries to start small talk, pointing out that she saw Ah Tao arriving without family members (Roger was there, but did not come in). Ah Tao says that her family is all in America, though that is true only in the loosest sense. The woman asks Ah Tao her name and Ah Tao gives her real name. A man butts in that Chung Chun-Tao sounds like a maid’s name, Ah Tao snaps at him. She turns back to the woman, saying to just call her Ah Tao. The man approves of this other name, but Ah Tao just snaps at him again. The woman tells her to ignore him, but the atmosphere is getting to her. These people are needy, useless, unfriendly, judgmental, and kind of gross. She is not one of them.
That night, Ah Tao repacks her stuff and tries to walk out, even though she still has trouble using the left side of her body. Though there does not seem to be any employees around, she eventually notices another elderly woman wishing to leave, only to be guided away from the (probably locked) front door by a slightly younger man, who pretty much takes her around the lobby in a circle. They are joined by several other men practicing Tai Chi by the front door. There is no escape.
Sometime later, Roger visits Ah Tao, only to see her sweeping the floor in her room, something that he says the cleaners should do. He asks if the place is good and if she is used to it; she says yes. She is still sweeping the floor, so he plies the broom from her and starts sweeping the floor himself. Ah Tao once again refuses his offer to provide anything she wants (aside from unhealthy food), agreeing only for an extra pair of pajamas when he comes back next week. Roger refuses, saying that it is probably not good for her health if the home did not supply it. Ah Tao is okay with that, but continues to assure Roger that he need not worry about her. She claims that she is better off being here, compared to what Roger’s grandmother went through when she had a stroke. A couple of elderly neighbors butt into the conversation, asking who Roger is. Not a son…a god-son, it is concluded.
An elderly man named Uncle Kin is trying to get people to do the twist with him. Ah Tao glares at him and refuses, she can barely move anyways. He says that she should exercise more and have hobbies or she will die. He tries to get Choi on his side; she tells him to stop, but grins at his enthusiasm. She then sits down with a middle-aged woman called Mui and her mother. It turns out that it is the daughter who lives here, since she has regular dialysis and her mother cannot take care of her. Ah Tao says that she had a stroke. This is, perhaps the first time that she has actually said something truthful about herself to anyone in the home without prompting.
Ah Tao is undergoing physical therapy and she is getting better at moving the left side of her body again. Eventually, she is able to walk on her own and she can even sew…maybe. She has gotten better, at least for the moment.
The movie is basically the story of the final year or so of a woman’s life and the choices she makes. It is also the story of a man who had grown up depending on this woman, and now feels the need to repay her during the last stage of her life. It is supposedly based on a true story. I am not sure how true it actually is, but the movie does strike me as honest and sincere. The movie could have easily taken the path of least resistance and played up everything for maximum tearjerking effect. It doesn’t do that, though. Sure, there are moments where you might tear up, but the movie doesn’t seem to try to manipulate the audience into crying. Now, I have little problem with the occasional tearjerker; I consider my favorite film to be full of emotional manipulation that still gets me no matter how many times I watch it. Yet, this film takes a different route. Many of what would be big moments in a similar movie take place off-screen, and the viewer is not privy to what happened until it is mentioned in passing in a scene several minutes later. One possible side effect of its sincerity and honesty is that it might strike some viewers as cold. Really, though, it is simply giving the viewers the choice of how to feel. If the feeling is discomfort or puzzlement, then so be it. But, maybe the movie will end with viewers having a bit more understanding.
There are many elements in this supposedly simple story that it might be a little difficult to unravel. The focus is on the relationship between Roger and Ah Tao, and how they deal with this change that was as inevitable as it is sudden. While both of them are mature and could never be mistaken for silly or childlike, there is a sense that neither of them really grew up. Roger remains unmarried, even as his sister has become a grandmother. Ah Tao never married either, and has been perfectly willing to act as a helper to the Leung family for sixty years. She is uncomfortable with the idea of seeming either needy or useless. Ah Tao’s stroke is a wakeup call for both of them: she has known that she was getting old, but now she has to deal with the consequences of aging beyond merely slowing down. Gradually, she learns to accept that she is entering a new chapter in her life, and that the threat of another stroke or death should not prevent her from seeing what this new chapter has in store for her. Roger has to deal with a world without Ah Tao, a woman whom he had relied upon for all but ten years of his life. He will either need to hire another maid or become fully independent. They both are coming to terms with the fact that their lives have diverged and will eventually separate, so they act accordingly.
The bond between the two main characters is familiar, but also somewhat unfamiliar. The two characters are playful and loving, but they do not seem to open up to each other emotionally the way one might expect. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable doing that, but maybe they do not need to. Roger seems to act like Ah Tao is more of a mother than his own mother, which becomes apparent when his mother comes to visit and he is rather distant around her. Yet, he is also a practical man, and his practical decisions might puzzle viewers. He does not accompany Ah Tao to the hospital when she is sent there; he still goes about his business. He barely puts up an argument when she asks to go to an old folk’s home, but neither does he walk with her into the building the first time. He tends to avoid seeing Ah Tao when she is at her weakest, though that may be because she does not want him to see her in that state. He does not drop everything that he is doing to take care of her; he visits her when he can. He does not wait on her hand and foot, take her to a fancy restaurant, take her skydiving, or anything like that. And he does not fret over whether he made the right decision or not regarding Ah Tao.
Right or wrong, his putting her in an old folk’s home is made to seem rather unusual. While the facility is no palace by any stretch of the imagination, it is not the place for one to send one’s maid. It is essentially a dumping ground for elderly family members, not the help. While Roger is okay with telling Grasshopper the situation (and Grasshopper is quite surprised and impressed), neither Roger nor Ah Tao really tells anyone else in the home about their true relationship, letting others believe that they are related in some other way. At one point, Roger takes advantage of the Asian tendency to refer to friendly older associates in familial terms to let people believe that she is his aunt. There is a subplot with a woman who does nothing but yell about her absentee brother not paying his fair share of his mother’s stay in the old people’s home. Cold or not, Roger treats Ah Tao as family more than certain other characters in the movie treat their own parents. What would have happened had Roger not done anything at all? Would Ah Tao have just been left to her own devices after getting released from the hospital?
There is a subtle, but noticeable commentary on classism in Hong Kong society that Roger and Ah Tao seem to unwittingly breach. No one seems to notice that they are servant and master when they are together aside from those who already know. On at least two occasions, Roger is mistaken for someone from the working class primarily because of the way that he is dressed. Neither the movie nor the characters go out of the way to harp on this, but it is there. The brief bit of information about Ah Tao’s childhood may hold the key to why she rejects most of Roger’s attempts to help her out aside from paying for her stay in the home. While Roger is doing her a favor by paying well for her stay in the old people’s home, she may have asked to go in the first place as to avoid the feeling like he would eventually want to be rid of her. She was born an orphan and her stepfather died during the Japanese occupation. Her stepmother probably deemed her a burden and sold her off. The fear of what would happen if she were to become a burden again may have informed her attitudes and behavior throughout her life. The stroke, however, threw all of that for a loop, and her new life has forced her to reevaluate the connection between what she does and who she is.
The movie also takes a few loving jabs at the Hong Kong movie industry. The movie is full of cameos by major Hong Kong celebrities, some of them even playing themselves. The movie that Roger is working on, that Three Kingdoms action movie, turns out to be not all that good, and he knows it. When Roger comments on how movie stars have to keep themselves looking thin, Ah Tao says that it is a good thing that he is not a movie star; Roger is played by Andy Lau, one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong. And that Three Kingdoms movie could be a reference to any number of his movies.
For a movie so deceptively simple, A Simple Life may leave you with rather complex feelings. It does not tug on the heartstrings or wear its heart on its sleeve, simply allowing the hearts of the viewers to go where they may go. One reviewer said that what the movie supposedly lacks in heart, it makes up for in soul and integrity. I agree with that.
WTF ASIA 93: Parasite (South Korea: 2019, approx. 132 minutes)
WTF ASIA 94: 7 Khoon Maaf (India: 2011, approx. 148 minutes)