DVD Review: A Simple Life (Tao jie)

Two Saturdays ago, I finally got to read The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns by Margaret Dilloway, after reserving it at my local library two weeks prior since my library card was at its 50-item limit (95-100% books, depending on the week). I was interested in this novel about a 36-year-old rigid biology teacher with kidney problems whose greatest passion in life is potentially breeding a new rose, who suddenly finds herself the caregiver of her teenaged niece. I’m interested in flowers, and I wanted to see how Galilee Garner changed, if at all.

I don’t like novels that are too ruminative, that constantly chew on the same situations. I gave up on the last 30 pages of Blue Rodeo by Jo-Ann Mapson for this reason, although her most recent novel, Finding Casey, shows that she finally has a good handle on storytelling, and that I should see if The Owl & Moon Café and Solomon’s Oak, her two novels prior to Finding Casey, hold the same promise. There were times in the beginning, deep in the middle, and towards the end when I wanted to close Dilloway’s novel for the same reason. And then, suddenly the teenaged niece showed up. And then Gal went to those rose shows to try to prove her mettle in breeding roses.

I don’t mind if novels spend time on certain scenes for dramatic impact, growing them big enough so that they feel so vivid. I did finish The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns and liked it, though not as much as I thought I would, and I realized, getting back into novels more often, that it served an important purpose: It allowed the reader to completely disappear into this world of private school, roses, and makeshift parenting. That’s what books are supposed to do anyway. Some do. Some make you hope for the best for the characters, some make you feel frustrated at their stupidity (for me, that would be Leo Borlock in Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli giving into peer pressure when Stargirl was the best person for him, over all his peers), and some teach you things you never knew about and never imagined you could be interested in those subjects, including roses.

A Simple LifeI love it when movies do the same thing. My Dinner with Andre, for example, is actually two movies in one. The first is the one you see and hear and the second is what your imagination is showing you when you listen to Andre’s (Andre Gregory) storytelling to Wally (Wallace Shawn). A Simple Life, starring Andy Lau as Roger, a busy movie producer, and Deanie Ip as Ah Tao, his family’s nanny and maid for 60 years, does the same thing. It makes us think about getting older, about getting old. Who might take care of us if we find we can’t take care of ourselves? Ah Tao thinks about that after she has a stroke that paralyzes the left side of her body, and she decides that she wants to live in an old-age home because Roger can’t take care of her regularly since he’s in and out of Hong Kong frequently, in Beijing for discussions about his movies, and she’d be among people who could.

Before Ah Tao’s stroke, Roger is busy. She’s part of his small household, which also includes her cat, and she cooks for him and cleans for him. It’s a quiet, simple life. It’s not that Roger ignores her. Roger knows what value she brings to his life, how he’s able to be a movie producer because of her working for him in the background. But after the stroke, he sees just how valuable she has truly been. Later in the movie, when she comes back to the small apartment after Roger picks her up from the old-age home, she inspects the surfaces and finds a little dust. This is what her life has been ever since she her adoptive mother gave her away to Roger’s family while Japan occupied Hong Kong, after her adoptive father was killed.

The scenes in the old-age home give real pause. Many times, I thought hard about who I would be if I was there. Will I be there later in life? How would I treat it? Would I like it? I don’t know. I hope not to have to do that because I can’t imagine others taking care of me like that. I want to be the one to take care of me. I don’t want to give up that independence.

And yet, while the old-age home is the center of A Simple Life for a time, it isn’t the major story. That remains the deepening relationship between Roger and Ah Tao, Roger now taking care of her, and we find that he’s closer to Ah Tao than he is to his mother who seems nice enough, but a little distant. There’s a telling scene when Roger has fallen asleep with the TV in his apartment, and his visiting mother, in the bedroom, calls out to him to turn down the TV. He awakens, and then opens the paper, but she complains through the wall that he’s making too much noise with it. It’s not that she’s stuck up or anything like that. There is some warmth there, but there’s much more between Roger and Ah Tao and it makes for many nice scenes that can actually restore your faith in humanity if you’ve lost it lately.

Just like The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns, there are scenes in A Simple Life that drag, mainly after an hour and 15 minutes. The scenes afterward would seem to be superfluous because we’ve seen how Roger and Ah Tao’s lives have changed. How much more is there? But it turns out that there is much more, that Ah Tao does integrate more easily into her life in the old-age home, that it’s not as quietly sinister as it looks at the start, that those who work there, including the supervisor, who looks a bit severe at the beginning, actually do want to do some good for Hong Kong’s aging population. After that hour-and-15-minute mark, it becomes less about pushing a story along and more about watching Roger and Ah Tao simply be together. She’s not going to be here for much longer. Roger realizes that, and he does everything he can for her, since she’s done so much for him throughout his entire life, all the way from when he was born. You can’t shrug off that kind of love. You simply watch, and look into your own life, and appreciate that same kind of love that you might have, and realize that it’s not easy to find, but when you do, you appreciate it and never let it go. Not even for a minute.

Well Go USA Entertainment has chosen well in releasing A Simple Life on DVD. I don’t visit the DVD room of my local library often, though I should after finding today that the first season of Burn Notice, which is waiting to be picked up when I go on Sunday, came from that room. I should visit it more, and I hope that A Simple Life ends up there. It’s the kind of movie to bump into while you’re idly browsing on a Saturday afternoon when you have the room to yourself momentarily, or you’re the only one browsing the DVD shelves at your own library, and you find yourself curious about it, take it home, and you disappear into that gentle world. It almost seems unnecessary for this DVD to have included trailers for Dangerous Liaisons, Painted Skin: The Resurrection, and Ocean Heaven, since A Simple Life should get all the attention. Well Go USA still has to promote what it has, though, and it’s nice to know that it offers enough titles in order to be able to have A Simple Life be one of them. I still can’t get over that that’s Jet Li in Ocean Heaven. I didn’t recognize him until the second time I saw the trailer after I was done watching A Simple Life.

Even if you don’t have a great interest in foreign films, try this one. Even though we all live in different countries, we’re still human and we all face the same issues in our lives. It’s simply a matter of how we face them, and this one shows that aging can happen with dignity and love.

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