I meant to use the weekend to catch up on some reading but I caught up more on films instead. For various reasons, there were three at the house, but I don't want to watch Winter's Bone
until it's cold, so I sent it back. That left a Chinese film and a French-Canadian one, and I watched them in that order.
It's been so long since I dropped 桃姐
(English: A Simple Life
) into my queue that I forgot it was a Hong Kong film. It took me until the end of the credits to figure out that they were speaking in Cantonese and even longer than that to figure out that this was an Andy Lau film. When I discovered Hong Kong film, Andy Lau was a god--or more precisely, a Heavenly King
. We called him "Andy 'Not In The Face!' Lau" because his Cantopop heartthrob status meant that, even during the most vicious fight scenes, no one took at swing at his head. He wasn't as pretty as Leslie Wong, but then no one was, not even the starlets they paired him with. And he grew into his acting roles from a slightly stiff stand-and-model start.
Which is good, because the film rests on his shoulders as much as it does Deanie Ip. She's the focus character, an orphaned maid who's been with the same family her entire life. He was the last child she was allowed to spoil before the bulk of the family packed up and moved to California. Now middle-aged and still unmarried, he's the only one left for her to take care of in the cozy Kowloon apartment they share when he's not jetting away to Beijing or wherever on movie business.
Speaking of which, there's an early scene where he's in a contentious meeting with three other guys. Through the dialogue, it's revealed that one of them is a film director, another is an action director, and a third--the only Mandarin-speaker--is a financial backer of some sort. When the director pitches a fit and stalks off, someone calls after him, "Director Tsui!" It wasn't until that moment that I placed him as legendary director of the OUATIC series Tsui Hark. Then I took another look at the action director and placed him as fight choreographer and comic actor Sammo Hung.
That cosiness is one of the things I enjoyed about the Hong Kong cinema of the 90s. After all, the only reason I know what Tsui Hark looks like is because of his cameo in 雙龍會
), which also includes walk-ons from Ringo Lam and John Woo. And there's a callback to the in-jokes of that film in the very next scene, where it turns out that the argument in the conference room was all staged to extort more funds and Tsui compliments Lau's character by telling him, "You should've been an actor!"
So I was already in a nostalgic frame of mind, which made the film's themes of loss and forgetfulness all the more poignant. (Andy Lau hasn't had a chart-topping hit in more than fifteen years; after hears of chronic depression, Leslie Cheung killed himself in 2003.) Ip (the "Miss Peach" of the title) suffers a debilitating stroke and decides she wants to move into an nursing home before she becomes a burden to anyone. But Lau, left without any family in Hong Kong, becomes as devoted to her as any son. It's frankly sentimental, but that's not all bad, because (apart from discordant elements which recall some of the broader HK comedies) it works.
By contrast, I felt much less connected to the characters in Le Déclin de l'empire américain
. They're all very full of themselves, in the way that only academics can be (The fact that they're all speaking French only makes it worse) and most are cheats or liars of one sort or another, even if they're only really lying to themselves. The drama turns on an incident of infidelity disclosed out of casual spite and at times the stereotyping (e.g. the nurturing homosexual addicted to dangerous sex) becomes a bit hard to take.
On the other hand, some of my best friends are intellectuals who are full of themselves and, at its best, Déclin
reminds me of listening to their banter. At other times, it feels like a Canadian French Big Chill
. (That's not a compliment.) Perversely, giving the viewing order, this functioned as a prequel to Les Invasions barbares
for me, which probably made me less sympathetic going in. I'm not surprised that both films made the list of top Canadian films of all time
, and I'm equally unsurprised that both have seen their position slip with time, to the point of dropping off altogether in the current version.