Ebertfest 2014: A Simple Life (2011) and Goodbye Solo (2008)

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Roger Ebert called Ann Hui’s 2011 film A Simple Life “one of the year’s best films” (his review here).

Maybe halfway through tears started falling down my face and they really never stopped until the end. It is a film about end-of-life care, and in its own quiet beautiful understated way, it could change lives. You could watch that film and think, “My God, why don’t I visit my relative in the nursing home more?” Or whatever. It shows that life doesn’t stop until it, you know, stops. And the care of the elderly, and how we treat our elderly (both medically and emotionally) is often appalling. I think it pushes our own buttons, our fear of death, our fear of growing old and infirm. We don’t want to look at it. We fear it. Very few films address it head on. One of the saddest movies ever made (but gorgeous too), is 1937’s Make Way for Tomorrow, a film I can’t say enough good things about, and it’s about the elderly, and “what to do” with them. It is a tragic and unblinking look at the selfishness of those who are now in the position to care for their own parents. 2012’s Amour also fearlessly took on this important topic, in ways both redemptive and shattering. I thought of both of those films as I watched A Simple Life, which is a small miracle of a film. Sometimes you watch a film and you realize how the worn-out cliches, seen so often, have actually gotten inside of you, messing with your expectations. I hate it when that happens but it is certainly very interesting. Here is what I kept thinking would happen: I kept thinking that Roger (played by Hong Kong mega-star Andy Lau) would resent having to care for the elderly maid who had taken care of four generations of his family (she is Ah Tao, played by Deanie Ip). I kept expecting that Roger would find it a drag, a grind. Or that the story being told would be of a shallow ambitious career man who finds redemption in caring for someone else. But no. That’s not what the story is. The story is about family and how you care for a family member when they need you. That’s it. Later that night was the screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and I thought of A Simple Life afterwards. What does “do the right thing” mean? You could take an entire class in ethics to get to the bottom of it. In A Simple Life, Roger cares for Ah Tao because she needs someone to care for her, first of all, and also she basically raised him. She has been in the service of his family for 60 years. So now it is his time to take the reins, and care for her. It’s a deeply humanist film. Ah Tao, a servant her whole life, resists being cared for. It feels wrong to her. But the entire family “does the right thing,” bringing Ah Tao out of the nursing home for family gatherings, or parties, and it’s not condescending or patronizing … It’s just what you SHOULD do in life. So often in film we are shown people who don’t know how to “do the right thing.” That is certainly a dramatic choice. Nothing wrong with it. The miracle of A Simple Life is that it shows the descent of Ah Tao into deeper and deeper illness, and it shows the family rallying round, and taking care of her, with a minimum of angst or annoyance. These are all good people.

The film may sound bleak. It isn’t at ALL. It is funny (often uproariously so), and unexpected. She’s put into a nursing home which looks awful, in our first impression. But it actually isn’t. It’s filled with crackpot elderly people, who play games, and support each other, and annoy each other. No villains. No bad guys. Life is more often like THIS than it is black-and-white.

The great David Bordwell introduced the film and started with a quote from critic Richard Schickel:

“Mortality is the only worthwhile subject.”

Director Ann Hui was in attendance, and when she walked out onto the stage, the entire audience rose to give her a standing ovation. The feeling in that theatre was overwhelming.

One young guy (maybe 18, 19 years old) sitting in front of me stood up and said that his grandmother was currently deteriorating. She was in a nursing home. And the young guy’s dad was always planning these huge outings for her, taking her to baseball games, etc. It was always this huge ordeal, involving much planning beforehand. The young guy always felt like it was too much trouble, and he didn’t understand why his Dad was going through all the hassle. He said to Ann Hui, “I understand now. Your movie helped me realize something about my Dad. And about myself.”

Well.

You can’t get more important than that.

GOODBYE SOLO

Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani is a youngish filmmaker, who found major support in Roger Ebert, who watched his films very carefully, reviewing all of them, carefully considering his talent, his expression. The two became friends. Bahrani has been a frequent guest at Ebertfest, and here he was again, to present his 2009 film Goodbye Solo. Roger Ebert reviewed the film here.

What an amazing experience. It tells the story of a Senegalese cab driver named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), who lives in Winston-Salem (Bahrani’s home town), and strikes up a friendship (sort of) with a grizzled old white guy named William who gets into his cab one night. That grizzled old white guy is played by Red freakin’ West, ladies and gentlemen, Elvis Presley’s best friend since high school.

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Elvis Presley and Red West

Red West was one of the “Memphis Mafia,” of course, and also became a stuntman. He’s in a lot of Elvis pictures, in fight scenes. He is also a songwriter, and, notoriously, one of the three guys who “betrayed” Elvis three months before Elvis died, publishing a really salacious book about Elvis. It was a crazy time. Red West has paid the price for what he did, and there’s no need to go over it again. Elvis was his best friend. Red West was terrified Elvis was going to die. He couldn’t stop the flow of drugs coming in from helpful doctors, friends, people in the entourage. He thought the tell-all book might snap Elvis out of it. Dumb. But whatever. There was a lot of crazy shit going on in those days.

But here he is now. And he gives an absolutely extraordinary performance as the suicidal old guy who has hired Solo to drive him out to a famous rock 100 miles outside of Winston-Salem called “Blowing Rock,” where the wind blows so hard you throw a stick over the cliff and it flies back into your hand. The reason he wants to go out there is clear, although not stated outright. He wants to jump off on an appointed day. Solo, who is a natural optimist, a hard-working guy, who drives a cab and is studying to be a flight attendant (the guy playing the role is also an actual flight attendant), basically insinuates himself into William’s life. He wants William to live. He doesn’t even KNOW William, but he knows that he wants William to live.

To say more would be to really ruin the experience of the film.

Red West, as I said, is heartbreaking. It is an awesome performance. What a face. What a hard life, etched into every line. He’s terrific. And Souleymane Sy Savane as Solo? Amazing. He is a never-ending flow of chatter, humor, conversation. He is a life force.

The film could have been depressing. It isn’t, although there are glimpses of agony, of loss and regret. It’s about a relationship. It’s about letting people go. It’s about friendship. We’ve talked a lot about male friendship in my discussions of Supernatural, and how so few films nowadays really address it honestly. It’s either cloaked as a “bromance,” or it shows guys bonding by killing hookers in Thailand or whatever. Yuk. Goodbye Solo is about a friendship between two guys, end-stop. Guys can be friends without all that bullshit around it. Why don’t we see it more often?

I will not forget either of those characters. They are alive in a way you rarely see on film.

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8 Responses to Ebertfest 2014: A Simple Life (2011) and Goodbye Solo (2008)

  1. Julia says:

    Ann Hui is a force of nature. Her first film that I’ve seen was The Way We Are and it was so so good. I think her strength is her ability to really observe small and mundane things in life and present them in a way so subtle, never moralizing, but serene and seamless. What’s more, it’s very Hong Kong. I love that.

  2. sheila says:

    “serene and seamless” – absolutely! It was a pleasure to meet her – so glad she was there – and also a total pleasure to see that film in such a venue. Packed house. The laughter, the sound of total silence as people absorbed this wonderfully human story …

    Definitely one of my favorite films in the festival.

  3. Helena says:

    So pleased to read this lovely review of ‘A simple life’ – what a fantastic film. I saw it a special screening a while ago with a mainly Chinese audience who were very appreciative – this is their family story, too. It really is a film without the conflicts we expect to happen and all the stronger for that, much more about love and people joyfully rediscovering each other as they exchange roles in life.

    Roger Lee, the guy whose story it was, gave a Q and A at the end, and he was very charming, funny and modest and gave some interesting insights into the transition from real life to film. He was obviously chuffed to bits that Andy Lau had made the film possible and played the role of Roger – I mean, that’s like being played by George Clooney, so it’s a running joke to have the character of Roger constantly mistaken throughout for a plumber or photocopying engineer. And for fans of HK cinema there are lots of cool star-studded cameos, eg the care home owner is played by Anthony Wong, legendary cinematic badass (and one of my favourite actors.) Loved Deanie Yip’s performance, so modest, honest, understated and truthful, and Lau matches her very well. So pleased you saw this!

    • sheila says:

      I love all the Hong Kong cameos!

      This line of Roger’s got a huge laugh:

      “Do I look like a taxi driver? I fix air conditioners.”

      HA!!

      How great that you got to listen to the real-life Roger speak!

      • sheila says:

        One of my favorite scenes when Roger is hanging out with his childhood buddies and they all call Ah Tao in the nursing home and sing that chant that they sang when they were kids. To bring a smile to her face. God, such a KIND moment.

  4. Helena says:

    Yes, I remember that scene – they remember her, and her cooking, with such affection. You’re right, it’s kind and full of love. The whole film is full of such moments, yet it’s not saccharine at all.

    • sheila says:

      Right! And it also has tension – it’s not just about nice people being nice with no obstacles. But the tension comes from normal everyday life stuff. What to do in crisis situations, how to handle it, how to face death … not the manufactured tension of “Should I NOT take care of Ah Tao? What about ME and MY life?” Like, that doesn’t even come up – and what a welcome change. Because people DO take care of one another in life, sometimes.

      Beautiful film. Before the screening, Chaz said that she and Roger had loved the film so much – but that it took on even more resonance to her, personally, because in the last years of his life Roger was so sick that he needed live-in at-home care. And these caregivers are just amazing individuals – they help everyone with that transition period from life into death. It’s such important work.

      I loved how the nursing home seems like the worst place on earth at first … but slowly you see the humanity there. The staff cares. They are doing their best.

  5. Helena says:

    I can see why it would mean so much to Chaz Ebert.

    So much is coming back to me now – I remember one scene where we finally understand how overworked and stressed the manager – not particularly sympathetic to begin with – really is, and yet how committed to her work she is, and sympathise with her. And there’s that sequence where the home receives a stream of visits from young people dancing and handing out sweets (which they then take back ready for the next care home) – basically just a bewildering stream of photo opportunities. So funny.

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