Following Crystal Swan, my second LFF choice turned out to be almost the opposite kind of film. A Family Tour is a much more serious and thoughtful film but is perhaps too low-key to catch the attention it deserves as a commentary on the lot of independent filmmakers in China. The narrative is based on events in the life of the film’s director Ying Liang. It concerns an independent filmmaker from North East China whose film has been banned in the PRC because it discusses a local criminal trial viewed as having political implications. Director Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) has been forced to leave China and join her husband Cheung Ka-Ming (Pete Teo) and small son in Hong Kong where father and son have the protection of birth in the SAR (‘Special Administrative Region’) whereas Shu herself must keep seeking the right to remain. She can’t go back to the mainland in case she is detained. However, Shu’s mother Chen Xiaolin (Nai An) is now ill with heart disease and Shu feels she must see her again.
The opportunity to meet comes when Yang Shu is invited to present her film at the Formosa Film Festival in Taiwan. Her elderly mother can join a tour party in Taipei (one of the few ways in which trips to Taiwan from China are allowed) and Yang Shu and her family can book into the same hotel. They can’t however meet Mrs Chen directly. Instead they must pretend she is simply a family friend and meet her ‘accidentally’ as the tour bus visits various tourist destinations. The tour party is led by a small but ferocious woman briefed by the PRC authorities and she is keen to enforce the rules (and to receive ‘sweeteners’ from Cheung Ka-Ming). As this strange family reunion trundles around Taiwan, several different discourses about home, family, loyalty, exile and identity emerge. There is an emotional desire to see her grandson in the flesh from Mrs Chen (she has kept in touch via Skype) but for Yang Shu there is pain and anger as she learns more about what happened to her father and also a different kind of loss when Mrs Chen tells her about the changes in her home town. Cheung Ka-Ming wants to support his wife and mother-in-law, but in some ways his capacity to move between the mainland and Hong Kong makes his wife feel more isolated.
Meanwhile, the film festival occasionally intrudes and more importantly, Yang Shu’s next film, a Hong Kong production which features the Umbrella Protests in 2014, runs into problems which might be caused by the mainland authorities. I found the Variety Review of the film by Jay Weissberg to be informative and insightful. I can see that there are many interesting aspects of the narrative and that it conveys the anguish of exile and separation and the impact of learning about the past in subtle and affecting ways. It is a well-made and attractive film to watch but somehow it just felt too restrained. The problem is no doubt with me. Yang Shu is reserved and her anger is often internal, Cheung Ka-Ming is more outgoing, kind and considerate – but then he is not under pressure in the same way. I haven’t seen the previous films from Ying Liang. Reviewers suggest he has introduced some more intimate shots into his usual long shot style. The consensus seems to be that this film is a welcome development in the handling of what is quite an austere aesthetic approach and that it should have a successful run on the festival circuit.
The prolific Johnnie To was ‘discovered’ by the international film festival circuit around 1999 (more than ten years into his career) but it was not until 2005’s Election that his films began to appear regularly at festivals. I’ve seen To quoted as being interested primarily in the Hong Kong market and not wanting to draw on global films for inspiration. However, on the Criterion website he gives his own Top Ten Films which include three by Kurosawa Akira and two by Jean-Pierre Melville – and his films do seem to refer to well-known films from Hollywood, Bollywood, Europe and Japan. Or perhaps he and his co-writers just happen to come up with similar ideas? IMDB carries a ‘Trivia’ item claiming that “Alain Delon is his favourite actor”. In 2007/8 rumours began to circulate that To would direct a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic polar, Le cercle rouge (France 1970), with Alain Delon in a lead role. Delon turned down the opportunity for whatever reason (he was then in his early 70s) but To was still sought by a French production company to direct a France-HK co-production – in English.
The significance of this background is that Delon was a major influence on at least one aspect of John Woo’s ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ films – namely the modelling of Chow Yun-Fat’s characters in films like The Killer (HK 1989) and A Better Tomorrow (HK 1986). Johnnie To is one of the main inheritors of Woo’s position as a creator of Hong Kong crime films and so a potential replacement for Delon was found in the form of the French pop/rock singer and actor Johnny Hallyday. The resulting film Vengeance achieved a cinema release in both France and the US but went straight to DVD in the UK (where To films like Exiled (2006) have had cinema releases). More surprising, perhaps, is that Vengeance was shown in competition at Cannes.
Vengeance features three or four of To’s regular ensemble in lead roles and its setting is in Macau, suggesting to some fans/critics that it is part of a loose trilogy of Macau-set crime films alongside Exiled and The Mission (1999). The plot is simple. Three hit-men arrive at a house and kill a family of four – apart from the wife/mother who survives but is rendered quadriplegic. She is the daughter of a French chef/restaurant-owner and he arrives in Macau bent on revenge. Using a clue he steals from the police investigation, he finds another trio of hit-men and offers them all his wealth to find and kill his daughter’s attackers. The chef turns out to have once been an assassin himself and he still has some ‘professional’ competence but is hampered by loss of short-term memory caused by a bullet lodged in his head. In the ensuing slaughter he needs Polaroids of his own men and his family to avoid mistakes and to remember why he now kills again.
Vengeance received mainly positive reviews but some crime film fans dismissed it and Joe Queenan in the Guardian described it as ‘insane’. Partly, its reception depends on familiarity with the Hong Kong crime film. Certainly the script by To’s production partner and writer Wai Ka Fai relies more on interesting set-ups for action and our familiarity with the bonds of friendship and loyalty among the gang members than on a carefully worked out narrative. To professes not to work with detailed scripts. The set-ups for shoot-outs here are indeed creative – one in a picnic spot at night with moonlight revealing and obscuring the action, another on a waste tip with highly choreographed moves behind bales of waste materials. The familiar actors are Anthony Wong and Suet Lam on the ‘home team’ and Simon Yam as the chief villain – who ordered the original hit. As usual with To, cinematography is the preserve of Cheng Siu Keung and the film looks good, making the most of the locations.
What is odd is to see Johnny Hallyday as the ‘last man standing’ and by the time the dénouement arrives the narrative does seem to have morphed into something more spiritual and philosophical. Apart from the amnesia narrative, the dialogue in English also lends the proceedings an air of strangeness. Hallyday presumably speaks English well enough but some of the other leads are dubbed. I’m not sure about To’s facility with English as a working language (he sometimes has a translator) and shooting some of the scenes in the film must have been slightly surreal. I presume the English dialogue helped sell the film on the international market. It also serves to push the film towards the more ‘personal’ and idiosyncratic end of To’s output.
This screening in the CRIME: Hong Kong Style season at HOME featured a Q&A with director Felix Chong chaired by season curator Andy Willis. The director’s responses made for an entertaining post-screening discussion but it was the film itself that made the most impression. Interest in the screening meant that we were in HOME’s biggest cinema auditorium and the film was projected from a 35mm print in good condition for its UK première appearance.
Once a Gangster is a comedy crime film with the same mix of slapstick and violence as The Pilferer’s Progress earlier in the season, but it is much more concerned with what used to be term ‘intertextuality’ in the high period of postmodernism. In other words, many of the laughs in the film are based on recognition of the comic targets drawn from other films. The basic premise of the narrative mirrors that of Johnnie To’s Election (2005) (showing later in the season at HOME). The election of a new triad chairman is being organised and three candidates are being promoted by their supporters, two of them very reluctantly. The film’s climax will involve a search for the authentic Dragon Bone – the symbol of the chair’s authority (here neatly stamped with the legend ‘Made in Hong Kong’). The innovation here is a prologue set several years earlier in which we see a young chef joining the triad in order to be successful in the restaurant business. This is ‘Roast Pork’ who will become one of the contenders for Chairman in the main narrative. Meanwhile ‘Swallow’ (or ‘Sparrow’) has been in prison and is nominated by his mother as another candidate. The joke here for HK crime film fans is that these two contenders are played by Jordan Chan and Ekin Cheng, stars of the 1990s series Young and Dangerous.
Felix Chong takes a pot-shot at his own work as well. He was one of the main scriptwriters on the Infernal Affairs trilogy in the early 2000s and here he introduces an undercover cop played by Wilfred Lau as a ‘look-alike’ Tony Leung. This hapless character is the personal assistant of the third contender for Triad Chairman, the equally gormless ‘Scissors’ (Conroy Chan). There are probably several more references like this but they escaped me during the screening. I did react to the music which from the opening credits announced the nature of the fictional world about to be presented to us. I recognised the reference to Italian popular films and later Felix Chong confirmed that he had chosen “spaghetti western music” simply because he thought it was funny. The film also delivers several very funny sight gags, some with an almost cartoonish quality (including a nod to the ‘One-Armed Swordsman’).
The film overall has a strange ‘out of time’ feel. A series of flashbacks are presented in grainy, scratched and colour degraded stock but the prologue and the ‘present’ both feel like they could be the 1980s. ‘Swallow’ emerges from prison proclaiming the ‘wise words’ of Milton Friedman, the economist responsible for the spread of monetarism in the 1980s. Friedman did visit Hong Kong and promoted its economy as a good example of the ‘free market’. I guess his ideas do fit a gangster’s conception of the world but I thought the appearance of Friedman’s book was the most terrifying thing in the film. The book appears in a scene featuring a bookshop and several audience members responded to this with recognition of the current censorship by the mainland government and the ‘disappearance’ of booksellers. There may well be references to the 2010 political situation in the film, but I didn’t notice them.
In the Q&A Felix Chong admitted that the film had not been a big hit. He told us the budget was small and that he had only 20 days to shoot the film so in the circumstances he did rather well! Most interesting, he told us that when he screened the film, both police officers and gangsters asked him how he knew so much about what happened in these kinds of situations. We take this with a sackful of salt perhaps but I take much more notice of his comments that the ‘godfathers’ of crime are now sending their sons (and daughters?) to university to get MBAs. In the film, Swallow is a reluctant contender for triad chair because he wants to go to Hong Kong University to study economics (again a trope recognisable from Election in 2005).
Felix Chong also wrote and co-directed three Overheard films (2009/11/14). Two of these have already been screened in the CRIME: Hong Kong Style season and the third is tonight with Felix Chong again present for a Q&A. I wish I could be there – I’m sure it will be another treat.
This was one of the more unusual screenings in CRIME: Hong Kong Style at HOME, Manchester. Fraser Elliott from the University of Manchester introduced the film and gave us some interesting context. This was the fifth film from John Woo and a box office smash in Hong Kong. At this point Woo was working for Golden Harvest the local company taking over from Shaw Brothers as the leader of the HK industry. For those (most of us?) who only know John Woo from his ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ period and his later flirtation with Hollywood before the return to China, this broad Cantonese comedy might be something of a shock.
The simple plot sees conman, ‘Dragon’ in an uneasy alliance with would-be body-guard ‘Poison’, played by local stars Richard Ng and Ricky Hui, brought together in adversity and forced into a game of punch and counter-punch with a wealthy but crooked businessman ‘Rich Chan’. Chan has stolen some diamonds and our two heroes end up trying to get them back on behalf of the film’s romantic interest, ‘Mary’, whose uncle is the real owner. Our two heroes also hope to make some money on the side.
Fraser argued that the film appeared at a time when Hong Kong’s economy was in turmoil and many workers in traditional industries had lost their jobs. Stories about making money were popular – and the new wealthy types were unpopular. In terms of the film industry there was a move away from the Mandarin language wuxia and melodramas and the rise of Cantonese cinema and kung fu. The Pilferer’s Progress can be seen as a then new form of hybrid genre. Clearly modelled on the ‘buddy movie’ (John Woo seems to have been a fan of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid amongst other films) popular in 1970s Hollywood, there are plenty of other filmic references as well as direct imports from the Bruce Lee films of the early 1970s also from Golden Harvest. As well as martial arts sequences there are traditional slapstick routines, references to spy movies (Dragon is a gadget freak with a new gadget for each task) and an hommage to Jules Dassin’s Topkapi (1964), later to appear in Mission Impossible (see the still above) and thus referencing the ‘caper’ movie.
Omar Ahmed’s post on the screening draws parallels between Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s and what was happening in popular Hindi cinema (not yet generally known as ‘Bollywood’, more often as masala films) in the same period. Omar suggests that it was a one-way traffic between the two with India importing martial arts display from Hong Kong, but both cinemas were also absorbing popular traits from international hits. Dragon’s use of technology perhaps refers to The Conversation from 1974. At the same time, both Cantonese and Hindi films drew on long-standing comic types in offering fun to popular audiences and The Pilferer’s Progress refers to local cultural figures – such as “the Golden Shaolin Warriors” as one IMDB user calls them. I think this is a reference to the final fight sequence in which the bad guy gets dipped in paint.
The ‘comic business’ in the film was familiar to me from slightly more recent New Year films and I confess that at the start of the film I did wonder whether I could cope with this for 90 minutes. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sheer athleticism of the performers and their comic timing won me over and I laughed/groaned out loud on several occasions. It was good to see some gags that had survived since the 1920s or even earlier. Before CGI performers really did have to ‘perform’ in these kinds of films.
From what I could glean from the credits, the print came via Star TV and carried a 1993 logo. The programme notes suggested that we were watching a DigiBeta copy of the film on HOME’s second largest screen. The ‘Scope print did indeed show it’s age and was in places distorted and degraded but again it’s to the credit of Woo and his team that the entertainment level was maintained. It’s great that the HOME programmers and their sponsors could get a print at all but it does show the dire state of archiving from the period – a problem that goes way beyond Hong Kong and in the new digital age will continue to grow without more international co-operation.
The Hong Kong Crime Season, currently underway at HOME Manchester and then on tour in the UK, is showing a range of HK films, including the classic Election (2005) by Johnnie To (on March 21st in Manchester). I’m reviewing some Johnnie To titles not in the season as my offering in support of a really worthwhile venture.
Johnnie To is one of the most prolific – and most successful – filmmakers in Hong Kong with a filmography dating back to 1978 in film and TV. He is primarily focused on making films for a local Hong Kong audience and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that his films began to feature on the awards lists of major international film festivals. Although he has made all kinds of films, it is his crime films from the early 2000s that have generated international interest and comparisons with crime film specialists such as Jean-Pierre Melville. To works through his own production outfit Milkyway Image Company and works with a small stock company of actors and creative personnel (writers, cinematographer etc.). His partner in Milkyway has been the writer/producer and occasional co-director Wai Ka-fai. The festival awards that some films have won has led to UK distribution for several of the recent Milkyway films.
PTU (Police Tactical Unit) is a good starting point for anyone new to To’s work – a short and ‘contained’ film set over one night on the streets of Central Hong Kong. The PTU puts two small groups of uniformed police on patrol in the nighttime streets. The night begins with news of a fellow officer killed on duty during a raid on an armoured car and then the PTUs come across a wounded plain-clothes officer from the Anti-Crime Unit. Sergeant Lo (Suet Lam) has been beaten up by four thugs from a local crime gang and in the process has lost his gun (a serious incident that should be reported). PTU Sergeant Mike Ho (Simon Yam) agrees to help Lo find the gun and not to report the incident until morning. In the meantime however a crime boss has been assassinated and Lo becomes involved in the battle between two gangs. The assassination also comes to the attention of a CID squad who don’t trust Lo. Ho also finds his authority challenged by Kat (Maggie Shiu), the other Sergeant leading the second PTU squad. She wants to ‘play by the book’.
The remainder of the narrative develops into a tense drama in which the two crime bosses both try to use the desperate Lo to set up an ambush while the PTU and CID attempt to follow events and to pursue slightly different agendas. In true crime genre style, all the main characters end up in a shoot-out and To ties up all the narrative strands very neatly. It’s clear from the outset that Johnnie To knows exactly what he is doing. The film succeeds because the script is tight (with some nice humorous touches), the performances by the leads are strong and the cinematography by Cheng Siu Keung is excellent throughout with a good balance between long shots and close-ups.
The Region 2 DVD carries interviews with both Johnnie To and Simon Yam. To explicitly addresses the behaviour of Ho as a police officer prepared to bend rules and coerce suspects. He seems to support this kind of action, arguing that it certainly happens. The moral question here – the end justifies the means – is complicated by the strong performance by Simon Yam, the most convincing ‘heroic’ police character. To’s position is further complicated by his decision to make both of the two female police characters ‘weak’. He attempts to justify this in his interview, arguing that the two weak characters are important and that they stand out because they are women – i.e. I think he is saying they are not weak because they are women! This is to say the least dubious, especially since there are no other significant female characters. All the interviews I’ve seen with To have been translated so perhaps I have misunderstood this?
To’s films are clearly first for Hong Kong (and mainland Chinese) audiences. The HK audience will no doubt recognise many of the locations and the actors but even they may be a little taken aback at the shift from full-on crime genre to more ‘personal’/arthouse approaches to genre. PTU has action sequences at the start and the end of the film but also long periods of stalking through the streets and in particular up the staircase of a warehouse for several minutes with minimal dialogue. Often the PTU members seemed to be choreographed moving in formation and standing in tableaux (see the image at the head of this posting). IMDB reveals what happened when PTU was released in North America and the lack of action was noted – but also the music comprising guitar riffs and synths. I found this fine but it really upset IMDB’s ‘Users’. Clearly scoring of crime films in Hong Kong does not match US conventions as far as US fans are concerned.
The fact that the narrative is completed within 24 hours is a distinct bonus, I think and I was reminded of Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After (HK 2014) which Cornerhouse/HOME screened as part of the Asia Triennial Festival in December 2014. ‘One Night In . . .’ is a concept in several important films such as La haine (France 1995) (also with a lost police gun) and The Warriors (US 1979) and it works just as well in PTU. I’m impressed with Johnnie To – more to follow.
HOME in Manchester is on a roll. With the last weekend of its excellent Jim Allen-scripted film season still to come, we now have the announcement of an extensive Hong Kong Crime Fiction season running during February, March and April. CRIME: Hong Kong Style is also a touring programme showing at various venues around the UK. It’s supported by the BFI and Lottery Funding as well as the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office. The programme is produced by Rachel Hayward and Jessie Gibbs and curated by Andy Willis. If it is as good as their recent programmes for ¡Viva! this should be a must see. As well as the films there are several events, including film introductions, illustrated talks and Q&As presented by Andy Willis, HOME Visual Art Director Sarah Perks, HOME’s local Chinese cinema scholar Felicia Chan and Wong Kar-Wai scholar Gary Bettinson.
The films are organised into different groups, sometimes by director, sometimes focusing on stars or writers, sometimes by production period or around more specific themes such as Hong Kong’s influence on Hollywood directors. The earliest film is The Swallow Thief from 1961 and the programme includes the UK Premiere of Ringo Lam’s Wild City (2015). The stars include Jackie Chan, Sandra Ng, both Tony Leungs, Andy Lau and many more. Each film appears to be showing only once (but I need to check that) at HOME. Check with your nearest venue for the films in the touring programme (see the HOME website for a list of venues).
The first Manchester screening (on 35mm, celluloid fans) is Wong Kar-Wai’s As Tears Go By (1988) with Introduction by Gary Bettinson at 18.15 on Thurs February 4th. Wong Kar-Wai’s début film is a gangster flick with a romance element. Still in the early parts of their careers, Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung are the cool guy and his beautiful cousin, while Jacky Cheung plays the hot-headed junior partner who keeps needing to be kept out of trouble. IMDB suggests Maggie Cheung had 11 (!) films released in 1988, including Police Story 2 with Jackie Chan. The original Police Story (1985) screens on February 25th at HOME. These films need to be seen on a big screen.
I hope to catch some of the screenings and events at HOME and to write about them here.
It’s been a long time since Wong Kar-Wai’s previous full-length feature, 2007’s My Blueberry Nights. I gave that a miss and the one before that, 2046 in 2004, although clearly important didn’t really work for me. So, like many others I suspect, I was hoping for a return to the Wong of In the Mood For Love, one of my favourite films of the last twenty-five years. The Grandmaster seems to have taken Wong nearly a decade to prepare and shoot/post-produce and it is in many ways an impressive piece of work. Unfortunately, however, the UK release is the severely shortened version of the original 130 minute Chinese cut. But this is a Wong Kar-Wai film and he has often re-cut films after festival screenings etc. The difference here is that although he has re-cut it, it would seem that Mr Evil – Harvey Weinstein – is once again involved as a distributor.
Wong’s purpose appears to have been to address ‘cultural difficulties’ expected to face Western audiences. Some (quite a lot) of material was removed and the nonlinear Chinese cut re-organised into a more conventional linear narrative. I’ll have to watch the Hong Kong Blu-ray from YesAsia to see what all this means.
The 108 minute film I watched in the cinema offers a narrative with four possible strands. The first is a partial biopic of ‘Ip Man’, the Southern Chinese master of Wing Chun kung fu who settled in Hong Kong in 1950 and proceeded to teach a succession of martial artists including Bruce Lee. The second strand is about the history of kung fu in China during the 1930s/40s and the ‘succession’ to the Northern ‘Grandmaster’ Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang). Ip Man is part of this story which is set in the context of the Japanese invasion of first Manchuria and then Southern China after 1937. This story, which involves the different forms of kung fu (three from the north), involves ideas about honour codes that link this narrative to both Japanese samurai stories and the American Western (and possibly the gangster film – the music for Once Upon a Time in America is listed in the credits). The third narrative strand concerns the potential relationship between Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) – the daughter of the Northern Grandmaster. Finally, the film explores a personal Wong Kar-Wai story, familiar from most of his films – the experience of Chinese ‘exile’ in Hong Kong in the early 1950s (complete with some Hong Kong archive footage ‘squashed’ into the wrong ratio which won’t please Keith).
None of these four strands is fully worked out – or, at least, that is how it seems from a first viewing. Neither the kung fu fans or the arthouse fans of Wong are likely to be satisfied. Even so, there are many pleasures to be had from the film. Enormous care has been taken in choreographing fight scenes (credit to Yuen Woo-ping) and production design by Wong regulars Chang Suk-ping and Yay Wai-ming. Japanese composer Umebayashi Shigeru’s score is immediately recognisable, though here he is joined on the soundtrack by French composer Nathaniel Méchaly – who IMDB lists as working on several French-produced ‘international’ thrillers. The cinematography is by another Frenchman Philippe Le Sourd whose previous credits are not extensive but who acquits himself well here.
Given the focus on martial arts skills there is a great deal hanging on the performances of the two leads Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi. Both have previously worked in wu xia films, the best known being the Zhang Yimou epics such as Hero in which they worked together. These required wire work and swordfighting skills. For The Grandmaster they needed to be world-class kung fu artists and there are many stories about the length and the extent of their training. I’m not a kung fu expert but the moves look impressive to me. Tony Leung is about as good as it gets as an actor in global cinema but I think he isn’t given enough to do in The Grandmaster (having said that he ‘does nothing’ wonderfully). Zhang Ziyi actually has a bigger role than the film’s overall story might suggest. Other than the two leads, the mystery for me is why two of the other leads are marginalised in this shorter version. Chang Chen who is given third billing in the credits has had a major sequence removed and the Korean actress Song Hye-keo who plays Ip Man’s wife also disappears from the narrative in the second half of the film. There is no explanation (that I remember) of why she can’t join her husband in Hong Kong after 1950.
My understanding is that the 130 minute cut is superior – but still has the mix of genres and with a non-linear narrative poses other issues for audiences. I think that I still want to see the longer cut. My sense is that the film will not do very well in UK cinemas but that a full length Blu-ray might do well. This comparatively expensive ($25 million) film did very well in China and other East Asian territories plus France and the US to reach $64 million worldwide.
Here’s the US trailer for the shortened version:
and this is the version promoted by Shaw Brothers Cinemas in South East Asia:
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.