'A Simple Life' an extraordinary film
CHAMPAIGN — During the last seven years of his life, Roger Ebert had caretakers who lived 24/7 in his and his wife's home in Chicago.
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That's why he related on such a personal level to Hong Kong director Ann Hui's "A Simple Life," a film based on the real story of Hui's producer, Roger Lee, who cared for his longtime family servant after she had a stroke.
Film scholar David Bordwell, who introduced the movie on Saturday afternoon at Ebertfest, called "A Simple Life" an extraordinary film, one that is a departure from the action, martial arts and other violent movies for which the Hong Kong film industry is known.
Ebert had invited Hui to bring "A Simple Life" to last year's Ebertfest. Hui, though, was in the middle of making a movie at the time. She said she is happy to come this year to pay homage to Ebert, who died April 4, 2013.
Hui began making movies in 1979, after a career in television. Asked whether she had trouble financing "A Simple Life," she said not after Andy Lau, the biggest movie star in Hong Kong, was cast as Roger.
Like many Hong Kong businessmen, Roger travels often to mainland China. His family life is unsettled, and all of his relatives live in America. After Ah Tao has a stroke, she asks to be placed in a nursing home.
Roger, who as a boy had been spoiled by her, takes care of the expense. Whenever in Hong Kong, he visits her and takes her to coffee shops and restaurants near the nursing home — the same places Roger Lee frequented with his family servant after she moved to a care center.
Hui shot most of the movie, released in 2011, in the largest elderly care center in Hong Kong. One-third of the cast members are major stars in the city. Another third are amateur actors. And the remaining were residents of the nursing home.
"It was relatively easy, production-wise," Hui said.
Actress Deanie Ip, who plays Ah Tao, won half a dozen best actress awards for the role of Ah Tao, a simple woman who has cared for Roger's family for 60 years and cannot seem to accept the care he and others offer her.
She "achieves the miracle of giving Ah Tao integrity, humanity and lovability without seeming to try," Ebert wrote. The critic also wrote that "A Simple Life" paints in gentle humanist terms portraits of two good people.
"It filled me with an unreasonable affection for both of them," he wrote. "Here is a film with the clarity of fresh stream water, flowing without turmoil to shared destiny. No plot gimmicks. No twists and turns. Just a simple life."
"Believe it or not," Hui said from the stage, "I was more moved by Roger's review than by my own film."
Hui's movie was followed by Ramin Bahrani's "Goodbye Solo," which Bordwell said also is about mortality. The screening of "Goodbye Solo," s released in 2008, marked the third Ebertfest showing of the young director's movies, after "Chop Shop" and "Man Push Cart."
Bahrani said the idea for "Goodbye Solo" began when he met a Senegalese taxi driver in his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and started hanging out with him.
"At that time, I stayed with my brother who lived not far from an assisted living home for the elderly," Bahrani said via email before Ebertfest started Wednesday night. "I would see an old man sitting in a wheelchair by the side of the road everyday. I wondered what would happen if he got into the taxi and the story kept developing from there."
The story has the man paying the taxi driver $1,000 to drive him to the top of a mountain in Blowing Rock National Park, "to a place so windy that the snow falls up," Ebert wrote. The fare says nothing about a return trip. When the cab driver asks questions, he's told to mind his own business.
In his review, Ebert wrote that Bahrani's story has "heartbreaking depth and power."
"The film is not finally about what William and Solo do," Ebert wrote. "It is about how they change, which is how a great movie lifts itself above plot. These two lives have touched, learned and deepened."
Bahrani, who teaches film at Columbia University, is now in post-production on his latest movie, "99 HOMES," starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon and Laura Dern.
"The story is about Dennis Nash (Garfield) who plays an out-of-work father in Orlando 2010, who struggles to get back the home that his family was evicted from by working for the greedy real estate broker (Shannon) who's the source of his frustration," Bahrani said.