One of the most garlanded films from East Asia in 2011 has finally made it into UK distribution – and it immediately goes into my Top 10 of 2012 releases. A ‘simple tale’ this may be, but it is exquisitely made and packs a mighty punch both in the emotions it arouses and the subtle commentary it makes on contemporary Hong Kong society – and on the power of nostalgia. It’s a star-laden production from the leads to the cameo appearances and the creative talent behind the camera. Ann Hui is the doyenne of HK directors, Andy Lau is the superstar of Chinese cinema and Deanie Ip, a significant figure herself in the 1980s, has come out of retirement to win the acting prizes. The film looks terrific thanks to Yu Lik-wai (best known for his work with Jia Zhangke) and the minimal piano score by Law Wing-fai is perfect.
A Simple Life is in some ways a nostalgic film – or at least a film about how memories inform the last few months of a powerful relationship in a middle-class Hong Kong family. I recommend the film’s quite beautiful website with its explanation of the role of the amah in Hong Kong households. I’ve deliberately chosen the nostalgic poster above to illustrate this.
I take the amah to be a colonial legacy (similar to the ayah in India). The amah was a maid cum nanny, often recruited as a young teenager, who would pledge herself to a family in which she would gradually assume charge of the children as and when they were born. She wore a uniform of black pants and a white blouse. Under British colonialism, the amah would serve in both the coloniser’s homes and those of the local middle-classes. The bond between amah and child would be very strong and would carry through to adulthood. A Simple Life is based on the real world experience of producer Roger Lee. In Susan Chan’s script Deanie Ip plays Ah Tao, the amah of Roger (Andy Lau), the last remaining Hong-Kong based member of a family in which his mother and siblings (now with children and later in the narrative, even grandchildren of their own) have migrated to California. Ah Tao has been ‘in post’ since she was a young teenager – over 60 years. Roger is an accountant in the film industry, often away on business. One day, on his return from Beijing, he discovers that Ah Tao, now his housekeeper, has had a stroke. He decides to acquiesce to her wish to retire and live in a care home and when she leaves hospital, he takes her to one that he has found, owned by an old and rather disreputable friend (played by the Hong Kong actor-director Anthony Wong).
Roger finds himself maintaining his close relationship, visiting Ah Tao and taking her out. Her decline is gradual but inexorable but in the process she develops relationships with several of the other residents in the home. The home itself isn’t too bad and it is in the local area that she knows and wants to remain in. Ann Hui chose the district herself as a location for the shoot. It is quieter than the more bustling streets well-known to film lovers. Hui was one of the pioneers of a form of social film with a realist aesthetic during the period of the Hong Kong New Wave in the early 1980s and A Simple Life feels very ‘located’. The film offers us a commentary on the realities of social welfare in Hong Kong and on the new system of ‘service’. Roger remains impassive when the charges for ‘escorts’ (the carers who take the residents out for hospital trips etc.) clearly delineate the Filipinos, Mainlanders and ‘Foreigners’ etc. (I confess that I didn’t grasp all the details but the sociology is interesting). This is confirmed when we see the interviews for a new ‘maid’ to help out in Roger’s flat – the candidates are clearly not prepared to consider the kind of work the amah did. Status is important in Hong Kong and some of the funniest moments come when Roger, because of his casual clothes, is mistaken first as an air-conditioning maintenance man and then as a taxi-driver. In the home, Roger describes himself as Ah Tao’s godson. There is a whole discourse about service and social class bubbling beneath the surface of the exchanges in the home. The older residents probably recognise the real relationship but the younger staff and visitors take it at face value.
The irony is that I’ve read that Andy Lau really is Deanie Ip’s godson (although she is only 14 years his senior). This and other relationships on the set infuse the film. Many of the actors and crew have worked together before dozens of times going back to Ann Hui’s earliest work. The directors Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung play versions of themselves. In an interview, Hui points out that most of the female leads in the film have won a Best Actress award. The film seems as much about validating and celebrating the history of Hong Kong cinema as it is about the amah system.
In the end, however, this is a family melodrama and when the whole family celebrate the first birthday of Roger’s great-nephew (a child who is now American-Chinese-Korean), I was forcibly reminded of scenes in Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi (A One and a Two, Taiwan 2000) and the stories of extended families coming together. A Simple Life uses both the Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival (Moon Festival) as foci for the presence/absence of family and the importance of social interaction. Although the film is, I think, technically a melodrama, it is marked by the absence rather than the ‘excess’ of expressionism in music or mise en scène. Everything seems restrained and low-key – meticulous rather than colourless though. If there is excess it is in the detailed focus on rituals like cooking and eating. The emotional attachment between Roger and Ah Tao is expressed through the food they make for each other – and how they talk about it. Chinese culture surely revolves around the pot! When we discussed the film after the screening I think one of the most interesting aspects of the film was the way in which Roger handled the inevitable death of his amah. How he behaved seemed to demonstrate a real difference between Anglo-Saxon and Chinese attitudes towards a ‘death in the family’. His actions seem far less sentimental than actions in a similar Western film – but they don’t detract from what we know is his deep emotional attachment to his amah. On the other hand, Deanie Ip says that she thinks Roger could have done more for his ‘Tao Jie’ and she feels it was a very difficult role for Andy Lau. I must see the whole film again, but especially the last third. I realise that there are large chunks of back story that are not explored – unless I missed a cue. Has Roger ever had a wife or a lover? How important was the heart surgery he had some time earlier? In many ways Roger seems like as much of an anachronism as Ah Tao in his flat with few of the accoutrements of modern living.
I’ve seen reviews of this film in the Western press which refer to its long running time (118 mins) and dismiss it as a ‘crowdpleaser’ for older audiences – i.e. not the kind of film to interest ‘real’ cinephiles. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a wonderful film that will reward attentive audiences.
Here’s a trailer (no English subs, but they aren’t really necessary):
and one with subs:
Interesting blog from Singapore remembering the amah in that culture.
The cinema audience in China is expanding very quickly. The final 2011 audience figures are likely to confirm the extraordinary growth rate shown in 2010 when four new cinema screens were opening each day. Since most screens are now in new multiplexes, often with 3D/IMAX possibilities, it isn’t surprising that locally-produced blockbusters compete on very favourable terms with Hollywood’s tentpole releases (which have restricted access to the market with only so many titles allowed and only at specific times).
Detective Dee: The Mystery of the Phantom Flame (HK/China 2010) was one of the big hits locally and regionally in East Asia in Autumn 2010 and it makes an interesting case study of the new Chinese commercial cinema. Like most such films it is a co-production between Hong Kong and China. Although mostly filmed in mainland China from a mainland story and script, the producer-director (Tsui Hark), action director (Sammo Hung) and three of the five acting leads (Andy Lau, Carina Lau and Tony Leung Ka-fai) are from the Hong Kong industry. The central character, Detective Dee, is based on a historical figure from the Tang Dynasty (7th century AD), Di Renjie, who was then fictionalised in a series of books by a Dutch sinologist, Robert van Gulik. Several American commentators have likened the film to Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes, i.e. as a mystery/thriller set in a historical period but played like a modern action film.
Outline (no spoilers)
In the year 679 AD (in European terms) the dowager Empress Wu Zetian has been the de facto power in the land for several years, often dealing harshly with any resistance to her plans. Now she intends to be crowned as Empress in her own right. The coronation is intended to take place after the completion of a giant 200 feet high Buddha. But when a foreign emissary is being shown around the interior of the soon to be completed Buddha things start to go wrong. Two senior officials internally combust without warning. Is the Empress in danger. She decides to send for ‘Detective Dee’ currently incarcerated in a maximum security prison. His release from prison attracts a gang of assassins who take their own lives rather than accept capture. With two reluctant assistants, the female bodyguard of the Empress and a senior officer of the Supreme Court, Detective Dee gets to work to solve the mystery.
I was interested in the genre mix here and how it has been interpreted outside China. The ‘meta-genre’ or ‘broad category’ is the historical action picture. I don’t know if there is an equivalent Chinese term for the Japanese concept of the jedai-geki or ‘period film’ but many Chinese and Korean films come into this category. Detective Dee seems to fall somewhere between the classical wuxia or martial chivalry film and the ‘kung fu’ film from Hong Kong. I take the former to be more ritualised and the latter to be more flexible and applicable across categories. I’m conscious that this may be a false distinction – any help gratefully received! Some of the Hong Kong films that I have seen add supernatural elements to the mix (A Chinese Ghost Story, 1987 – produced by Tsui Hark– and The Bride With White Hair, 1993). The latter film stars Brigitte Lin and Leslie Cheung and is one of several romance action dramas with strong female figures. Sammo Hung was also responsible for a sub-genre of kung fu zombie/vampire films starting with Encounters of the Spooky Kind, 1980. Detective Dee features supernatural elements which the detective must investigate in terms of rational explanations. The Chinese actor Li Bingbing plays the female bodyguard and thus for Western audiences is a reminder of the characters played by Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and Maggie Cheung in the wuxia romance films Crouching Tiger, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. However, in Detective Dee, there is little or no romance element and only a frisson of erotic excitement in the first encounter between Li and Lau. Instead, the film plays on the mystery element. Perhaps surprisingly given the Sherlock Holmes comparison there isn’t a lot of comedy amongst the action scenes. Some commentators have suggested that Andy Lau, arguably the biggest male star in East Asia, is rather wasted in the film as he doesn’t have to be witty or prove that he is a heartthrob.What he has to do is think, fight and remain a man of principle. This makes Detective Dee rather different from the typical Hollywood action hero, creating possible barriers for Western audiences. The title too might be a problem. In China it was Di Renjie but the English title suggests something like Pirates of the Caribbean or Harry Potter.
If my genre description makes the film sound dull, fear not. It isn’t dull by any means. Hark doesn’t let the pace slacken over two hours. Any scene that requires exposition to set up/move on the mystery is quickly followed by a highly choreographed and spectacular action sequence courtesy of Sammy Hung and wire-work. There are also moments when you want the action to stop to allow time to take in the incredible sets and the CGI work, especially around the imperial palace and the Buddha statue. I’m no expert on CGI, but it looked OK to me, certainly no worse than Hollywood, Bollywood or South Korea. (And it’s certainly an achievement on a film budgeted at around US$20 million.) It does lend an air of fantasy to the film however. It’s interesting to compare the settings to those depicting Alexandria in Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora (Spain 2009). Amenábar’s understated realism still manages to represent the spectacular whereas Hark’s film has some very dodgy touches such as a harbour full of galleons, seemingly a Western European design of the 16th century. Added to this are the foreign emissaries who visit the court from Umayyad Caliphate speaking in Spanish rather than Arabic. But none of this matters. This isn’t a realist or aesthetically exact art film. It’s an entertainment and as such it works very well – though it could sometimes do with a touch of lightness. It’s sad that Leslie Cheung isn’t around as he was in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s also sad that because previous Chinese blockbusters like John Woo’s Red Cliff haven’t drawn UK audiences to cinemas, more recent films like Detective Dee are only available on DVD. They cry out for a big screen showing and, who knows, this might be the start of a franchise.
One last thought. There is an obvious parallel with Zhang Yimou’s Hero at the level of the ideological. Hero was widely criticised, especially in the US, as a film that legimitised the Chinese government through its implicit celebration of the formation of the Chinese state through conquest. Detective Dee similarly asks the question – should the Empress be saved even though she is cruel and ruthless because she represents stability and the promise of prosperity for the people?
UK English subtitled trailer:
This is the third film by Feng Xiaogang that we’ve reviewed on the blog and it stands up well alongside Assembly and Aftershock. Like those films, it is a ‘big’ genre film with major stars and an ‘uplifting’ tone. In some ways it proves to be the closest to a Hollywood film that I have seen from East Asia – yet there are elements in the film that are distinctively Chinese and which I’m not sure I fully appreciate.
I think that generically this is a romance thriller crossed with a heist movie (there is no heist as such, but many of the elements of a film like Ocean’s 11 are utilised), mainly staged on a long train journey from Tibet back towards Beijing. The romance couple are a pair of consummate con-artists and skilled thieves played by the major stars Andy Lau (as Wang Bo) from Hong Kong and Rene Liu (as Wang Li) from Taiwan. (Lau and Liu are both pop stars too – of ‘Cantopop and Mandopop’ respectively.) At the beginning of the narrative they are in the process of falling out after another successful con that has won them a BMW. She wants to quit and focus on her pregnancy, he wants to carry on. Her decision is confirmed by a visit to a Buddhist monastery, after which she befriends a young man returning to his village in the East with his savings from 5 years of work. He naïvely believes that there are no thieves in China and indeed announces on the train that he is carrying the money. She decides to try to protect him from thieves – and this probably means thwarting her erstwhile partner. On the train there are various characters in disguise including a gang of thieves led by ‘Dr Li’ (played by the famous Chinese actor Ge You) and a police detective. The main part of the film becomes a four-way battle of wits and trickery plus spectacular action between Andy Lau’s character, the thieves and the police with Rene Liu attempting to protect the hapless young man and his money.
I love train movies and this one includes many of the familiar elements of chases through corridors, dining car, private rooms etc., false identities, overheard conversations etc. It also introduces an extra dimension utilising the space beneath the carriage roof and the ceiling of individual compartments – and of course the carriage roof itself as the site for fights. The train sequences feature several confrontations which Feng films in the exaggerated style familiar from martial arts films but here they are performed in the confined spaces of the train. These scenes – as well as the ‘Scope photography of the train in the landscapes of Western China – provide the spectacle in the film. However the real story of the film is the relationship between the central couple and the promotion of a kind of family solidarity which is constructed via the warring ‘parents’, the pregnancy and the attempt to protect the boy (he’s a young 21) and his money. This makes the film recognisably a family drama to match Aftershock. Lau and Liu work well together for me. Both stars are in their 40s and I found their squabbling and occasional glimpses of real feelings to be believable.
The ideological work of the film includes an attempt to portray Tibet as an integral part of China and an enthusiastic celebration of the new railway line as a prestige achievement. The crime scenario draws on what I understand to be a common occurrence of theft on Chinese Railways. The marked difference from Hollywood action films perhaps comes in the relatively slow pace of the beginning and end sequences of the narrative and the use of music – classical strings rather than the more rock/techno-flavoured scores of American action films.
Feng should be better-known in the West. His films are an antidote to the more scholarly action/costume films of Zhang Yimou or the indie/arthouse style of Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke. It is Feng’s films which are likely to carry elements of Chinese popular culture into the future global blockbuster films. The description of him as ‘the Steven Spielberg of China’ has more than a grain of plausibility in reference to representations of a kind of middle-class Chinese life (however that class status is achieved).
(There is one mystery. IMdb lists the Chinese version as a few minutes shorter than the ‘International’ version – yet the Chinese version includes a pre-credit sequence showing the con by which they acquire the BMW. Does anyone know what was cut from the rest of the film for the Chinese release?)