A SIMPLE LIFE is Hong Kong movie starring Deannie Yip Tak Han – I love her enigmatic stare – and Andy Lau that was released around 9th March. For many reasons, the month-long delay to catch it today was well-timed not least because I had two Cantonese-speaking companions who recognised the stream of veteran and senescent actors appearing in starring or cameo roles throughout the movie! Their delight to spot erstwhile famous personalities helped keep them awake throughout the movie which was just 2 minutes under 2 hours. Pretty long, I’d say.
A Simple Life is a captivatingly simple story about the relationship between Roger [Andy Lau's character] and Ah Tao, in Mandarin of course [Deannie Yip’s role], who has served his family 60 years. Though they now live together in a small apartment that has much room for his independence, she continues to serve him hand and foot, and both are habituated to the arrangement and relationship.
Resourceful with quick hands and wit to match, Ah Tao has qualities that make her a dying breed of domestic help. She is both disciplined and frugal, and attends to her charge with doting attention. In my life, I have only met one other like that. Sadly, she requested to return to China after she met a near-death freak accident along Farrer Road two decades ago.
Ah Tao’s influence on Roger is undeniable. As a servant, she knows her place to be quiet and diligent and Roger is just as reticent and reserved, saying the minimum necessary. In one very telling scene, from her bedroom, Roger’s mother asked him, “Are you nodding [to my question]? Did you hear me? I can’t hear you if you just nod!!” (It’s the same kind of conversation I have with my youngest!)
Much of the movie centres on Ah Tao’s residence at an old folks’ home. From the time Roger begins to check out different homes, the audience learns the types of homes available and the types of questions to ask when looking for one. Do you have dieticians, nutritionists, physiotherapists, nurse in this place? What activities do you have for the residents? Can you show me a typical bill charged to your clients? Why are the charges for diapers so high in a month, what is the meaning of ‘escort service’? The comparison and contrast between the home Roger first visited without street-level access and the one he finally decided to place Ah Tao is important cue to audience to make informed decisions. His inquiry and scrutiny on what goes on at a residential care for the elderly informs the audience on their rights to information before making a nursing home decision for their loved ones, especially if convalescent care is needed. The issue of professional neglect and abuse is a serious one. Delving into this topic [even for just 3 minutes onscreen] sets this movie apart from other mainstream commercial films that have no social obligation beyond providing entertainment.
Dialogue, faces and sounds of ordinary life accentuates each scene without the use of affective film scores.
Surprising nuggets of wisdom come from a pastor speaking with Roger and Ah Tao at the hospital, after her first stroke. ‘From hardship come our best experiences, so that we can comfort others.’ He went on to quote from Ecclesiastes 3 ‘There is a time for everything, a time to be born, a time to die, a time to weep, a time to laugh’ to which Roger and the ailing Ah Tao chimed in with their good-humoured non-biblical rendition. Love is found in laughter, in companionship and in prayer, the three then joined hands as Roger prayed to God.
The heart of volunteerism is not sympathy but humanity; of one person identifying with the pain and struggles of another.
It is also recognising that no matter what dire circumstances people face, it is important to preserve their dignity. Humanity, not sympathy, delivers it.
To treat elderly residents at nursing homes or senior activity centres as targets of our own altruistic goals and aspirations is abject ageism. What we need is to extend a touch of humanity and friendship, not pity that insult their dignity. In another exposing scene, director Ann Hui unmasked volunteer groups that use visits to the nursing home residents for self-benefiting publicity.
Family upbringing has much power to influence mindsets towards respect of the elderly and humanity at large. A Simple Life is not just the story between Roger and Ah Tao, and the reversal of their care-giving roles, but also speaks much about his entire family’s respect and acceptance of one who has served them four generations.
As a movie-goer, I find it such an irony that I can enjoy an Iranian film in its native language here [A Separation] but not a Hong Kong film in vernacular Cantonese. Originally produced in Cantonese, A Simple Life is dubbed in Mandarin here.
A Cantonese-speaking elderly couple beside me made me feel nostalgic about being in a Cantonese community. I’m certainly not a linguist but I feel that certain languages are able to cajole and humour better than others, and English and Mandarin lack such range. On the other hand, spoken Cantonese with nine complex tones is able to create a wide range of expressions to admonish, praise or deliver wit or sarcasm - all with diplomacy, tact and style. Sadly, the linguistic demands of commerce with its emphasis on English and Mandarin has severely eroded cultural nuances rich in Chinese dialects. It is a hefty price Chinese Singaporeans are paying for the economic survival of our nation. Maybe it's time to recover and restore the value of dialects to Chinese culture for Singaporeans.