Friday 3 August 2012

Holding true: "A Simple Life" and "London: The Modern Babylon" (ST 05/08/12)

A Simple Life (12A) 118 mins ****
London: The Modern Babylon (15) 125 mins *****

With the movie mainstream becoming reliant upon invulnerable superheroes, world cinema has countered with films that mine more affecting drama from human infirmity. A Simple Life, from Hong Kong, charts the renewed bond that develops between Roger (Andy Lau), a high-flying producer, and Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), his devoted housekeeper, when the latter suffers a stroke and elects to spend the remainder of her days in a care home. A decision never taken lightly, of course: if you think late-life care here can be impersonal, wait and see what happens in a small and massively overpopulated outpost.

Where Ann Hui’s film surprises is in allowing the facility’s inhabitants a circumscribed kind of life and spontaneity. Rather than pointing her narrative towards a predetermined tearjerker finale, Hui instead seeks out unexpected, funny and warming byroads for her leads – real-life godmother and son, with their own easy chemistry – to travel down. After Roger brings Ah Tao to his flat for dinner, the accumulating dust sets her to overseeing the search for her replacement; he hires a crew of comedy bailiffs to clear one of his family’s properties, hopeful Ah Tao might someday return to him.

We sense she won’t, yet there remains something touching in this mutual dependency, even the suggestion of more between these characters when Ah Tao shows up on Roger’s arm at one of his premieres. In resisting giving rich bachelor Roger a romantic interest, the film pays Ah Tao a particular honour: she’s the only woman in his life. It is still possible to make the most of the days and nights one has left, Hui’s film implores – though Ip’s remarkable ability to outline deterioration, mental and physical, contains a stark, lingering reminder: all of this is surely coming our way.

London: The Modern Babylon, Julien Temple’s smash-and-grab raid on the BFI archives, is a people’s history of the capital from 1900 to the present that charts over two dense, dazzling hours its subject’s shift from centre of the world to post-Empire melting pot and back again. Anyone expecting sedate, white-gloved scholarship should think again: Temple isn’t that kind of historian. As per Danny Boyle, his account is compelled by social unrest, boozy nights out, resonant pop, endless comings-and-goings, and interviews with actual Londoners (noted and otherwise) who don’t always remain on message. This city’s residents are, for better and worse, a lively mob, forever ready to rise up.

Temple’s DIY punk aesthetic, taping together diverse sounds and images, allows him to make provocative connections between, say, the Siege of Sidney Street and the 2011 riots; he splices Siouxsie over Chinatown, and Oswald Mosley alongside Sid James. The links are tenuous, instinctive; what’s important is that – like the city that inspired them – they somehow hold together, and true. Temple has become particularly adept at invoking the rousing spirit of a place without overlooking its less cheering specifics: the anti-Semitism and fog that once dogged these streets, the poverty that confronts Londoners even today. It’s a tale of two cities – where the best of times co-exists with the worst – and the filmmaker doesn’t so much mind the gap between them as plunge, frenziedly and triumphantly, into it.

A Simple Life and London: The Modern Babylon are in selected cinemas.

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