A review requested by Kin Wing Yan, with thanks for contributing to the ACS Fundraiser.

The American viewer who knows of Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau at all is likely to associate him exclusively or nearly so with action movies, though this is not at all a fair summarise his career, as I understand it. So as such an American, the first thing Ann Hui's 2011 domestic drama A Simple Life required the present reviewer to unlearn is that Lau has a certain persona and a certain range, and that is all he has. A Simple Life is the furthest thing possible from an action movie - its title is deadly serious and wholly descriptive of the content and stakes involved. Carve away the trappings of setting and the supporting characters who emerge as thoroughly well-established personalities, despite limited screentime, and we have here a good old-fashioned dramatic two-hander: a pair of very old acquaintances getting to know each other better under the creeping awareness that death is waiting around the corner.

The ingredients are Ah Tao (Deannie Yip), the very old housekeeper of an affluent Hong Kong family since time immemorial, and Roger (Lau), a film producer and the only member of that family still living in Hong Kong. In a lingering, unhurried way, the film shows the beats of their quotidian relationship, as she contentedly goes through the work of preparing meals and tidying up (the opening sequence, at a vegetable market is a perfect little gem of introducing character through action and the familiar tone of those she interacts with; in fact, I suppose that it's my favorite bit of the movie). He, meanwhile, treats her with the airy warmth and affection of someone who has managed to grow up all the way to middle age without ever getting around to internalising the reality that the woman who has been a fixture in his domestic life since always is actually a person with an actual inner life and any personality to speak of. It's not an abusive relationship in any way, and Ah Tao offers no evidence of desiring life to be any other way. All it is, is a bland void of impersonality. And this it would proceed to be for the rest of time, except that Ah Tao has a stroke, and decides that she'd rather go to a nursing home than take up Roger on his perhaps sincere offer to arrange for her to be taken care of in her own home.

What remains, for the great majority of the two-hour movie, is a new pattern of daily life, as she settles into her new surroundings and he visits her, more interested in keeping her company and making sure she knows that someone out there is concerned for her than in the rest of his busy life, though not in a mawkish way where he gives up everything to take care of her. This happens against the background hum of several other figures living in the same nursing home, visited (or not) by their own loved ones, and the occasional scene of Roger's family; it's one of those films where you get the impression that every character onscreen has enough of a rich, interesting life that they could have been made the protagonist of their own feature.

It is deeply invested in characters, then, and deeply humane; there's effectively no conflict or dramatic momentum, merely the psychological gradation of people set out with exquisite perception in Susan Chan and Lee Yan-lam's screenplay. Accordingly, it's a film that lives and dies on the central performances; for all of the skill Chan and Lee bring to bear, and even the graceful solemnity with which Hui shapes each intimate scene, there is no such thing as a good version of A Simple Life without a strong performance in both roles, though especially Ah Tao. I don't mean to diminish the filmmaking; Hui, a director with whom I have been completely unfamiliar up to this point, is up to some subtly miraculous work. She and cinematographer Nelson Yu Lik-wai (a regular collaborator of Jia Zhangke) keep the camera surprisingly active, moving in close to the characters and feeling wound up with energy even in the still shots. There's a gliding, lilting quality to the visuals that invests the material with a certain poetry even in its most straightforward, realistic sequences, and draws the movie into a reflective, impressionistic state that accentuates and underlines the actual matter of the writing and acting.

Still, the grace of the filmmaking is never an end in itself: it's a handsome frame. No, the film is all about Yip and Lau, sensitively dancing around their characters and each other in a pair of beautiful performances. Lau is impressive as hell as he navigates the shift from emotional absence to thoughtfulness and care mostly in the space of a single close-up reaction shot (which of course means that he had to thread some of that thoughtfulness in the film beforehand in quiet character-building moments), so it's no slight to him to declare that this is utterly Yip's movie. That's not an accident: she has more scenes and more explicit inner turmoil. And one starts to notice that part of the way Lau works Roger's generosity into his performance is to concede scenes to his co-star without a fight.

But most of what works is Yip's very own, giving one of those authoritative performances that can only come at the end of a very long career and works to engender an impassioned "how have is it possible that I've never heard of you?" response from e.g. the besotted American critic without nearly enough familiarity of Hong Kong cinema. The most basic reading of her character - that Ah Tao is anxious not to have her former employer take care of her in some kind of undignified, patronising gesture of noblesse oblige, that she is genuinely fond of him even so, and that she is nervous, unhappy, and disgusted in the nursing home - already requires a certain balancing of apparent opposites and a lot of unsaid feelings, and this is not the most basic performance of that role, either. It's the richest kind of acting, and there's not a trace of showboating: at no point does Yip ask us to notice how good she is. In fact, quite the opposite; it is a quiet, receding performance, and if A Simple Life is ultimately mostly just a delivery vehicle for that performance and that character, that's still enough to make it a commanding and powerful entry in the genre of "slow, haunting stories of people doing nothing much but living". It's not to everyone's taste, but it's an extremely impressive example of the form.