If I hadn’t been browsing the listings yesterday, I would have completely overlooked that Ann Hui’s A Simple Life was playing at River East this week. It’s got to be the most important under-the-radar screening in Chicago right now. Hui, who’s made about two dozen films in the past three decades, is often cited as one of the most important Hong Kong directors of her generation and one of east Asia’s most important female directors, period. Her work includes autobiographical dramas, period pieces, supernatural stories, and even action films: her third feature, God of Killers (1981), provided Chow Yun-Fat with one of his first leading roles.
Hui’s also worked extensively with the great action star Andy Lau, directing him in a variety of genres. Lau stars in A Simple Life as a man who devotes himself to his childhood maid (Deannie Yip, who won the best actress prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival for this performance) after she suffers a stroke. In the hands of many filmmakers, this could be a recipe for cheap sentimentality, but Hui seems nimble enough to avoid that trap. If her autobiographical Song of the Exile (1990) showed that she refused to sugarcoat her own life, chances are good that this story (which is based on true events, incidentally) is safe.
After the film’s Venice premiere, Daniel Kasman asserted as much in Mubi:
[T]he film with little fuss or editorializing introduces the spaces and conditions of the process of being sent to an institution, of getting older, getting informed about ailments and mortality, of having to be looked after, and of looking after someone whose life is going away. But I think the real challenge here comes in the fantasy of the film... [I]t is unreal that a woman in a wealthy family’s service for so long on an island, like Japan, with an aging population that is having trouble being cared for by the younger generations, is treated as one of the family’s own. The sentimentality is thus checked by this complex limbo the film is held in, between implying all that could be missing from the woman’s life and engaging emotionally with all there is.
If you’d like to catch up with Hui, you can find about a half dozen of her films between Facets and Odd Obsession Movies. I’m not sure if the Chicago Public Library has any, as it isn’t easy to search for Chinese-language materials in their online catalog. If anyone knows whether there are any Hui films in the CPL collection, please share the news in the comments section. I’ve got some catching up to do myself.