If you’ve ever watched, say, a film by the Japanese master Ozu, and wondered why nobody makes understated family dramas delivering essential truths anymore – then this awards-laden Hong Kong production from veteran director Ann Hui is definitely for you. Based on the true story of the film’s producer Roger Lee and his servant, it’s essentially about how we define family bonds, following Roger (action star Andy Lau in a serious change of pace) and his elderly family maid Ah Tao (stalwart character actress Deannie Yip) after she suffers a stroke.
No, it doesn’t sound like the stuff of pulsating drama, but the film’s unhurried way of letting us surmise the rippling ramifications of this situation is very touching. Stoic Ah Tao has been working as an in-house maid for workaholic film industry bachelor Roger. She has cared for him since he was a baby, but for all the time she’s put in, does their relationship amount to anything more than master and servant? Moreover, as Roger begins to realise her place in his life (he’s professionally successful but emotionally a desert), we note the contrast between his relaxed demeanour with Ah Tao and stiffer relationship with his grande dame of a mother.
Lau’s astute performance is rather like the film as a whole – at first you think it’s underdone, but it’s actually cannily judged to favour genuine feeling over pushy sentimentality. As indeed is Deannie Yip’s marvellous central turn as a woman who yearns to belong but whose inveterate submissiveness is shaped by decades of deference and class difference. An exquisite and wise moment of celluloid portraiture.