Intimate, quiet, tender, and with deep, emotional undercurrents, Ann Hui’s latest film is absolutely stunning. Western critics, who seem to think that the only people allowed to make movies that require concentration are European men, have taken it to task for “meandering” and being “too long.” But what Ann Hui has made is a movie as humble, handcrafted, and meaningful as a monk’s begging bowl, but as profound as Buddhism itself. People who don’t write for the Western press seem to agree with her approach: lead actress Deanie Ip won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, and the film won Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Director at both the Golden Horse Awards and at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
As a character based on the film’s producer, Roger Lee, Andy Lau plays a motion picture accountant who leads a globe-trotting lifestyle, but who always comes home to the apartment in Hong Kong he shares with Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), his family’s servant. His family have all moved to San Francisco, hers have all passed away, but every day she takes care of him the way she has her entire life. Then she has a stroke and asks to go into a nursing home. Roger reluctantly agrees and finds that just as she has cared for him all his life, he can now return the favor and take care of her as her own life comes to an end.
As Ah Tao’s health causes her world to become more and more limited, Roger is there for her every step of the way, doing his best to provide her with some human connection as her life slowly draws to a close. Andy Lau, Deanie Ip, and Ann Hui could all retire after this movie and consider their careers well-spent. But the film’s surprise box-office success has inspired Hui and Ip, in particular, to keep working. And watching their film, it’s easy to see why people have responded to it so strongly. Because this is what it looks like when a human life drifts away, as gently as smoke from a stick of incense. Watch carefully, because one day it’s going to happen to us all.