Mar 09, 2012
Actress Deanie Ip Tak-han was ready for a simpler life when she called time on her career after the 2000 release of Queen of Kowloon. It's ironic that, 11 years later, her turn in A Simple Life brought her back to show business.
"I've received a few screenplays down the years, but most of the time I couldn't accept the parts they offered me," said the 64-year-old. "For example, there were youth films looking for an elderly woman - but I hated youth films because most of them talked about crap. I don't really need to work in the movies to earn a living, so it was like, no thanks."
Ip, who won best actress at the Venice Film Festival in September for her role in A Simple Life, said she had not received that many requests for her to return to the fold, but she certainly made the right bet when she took up Ann Hui On-wah's offer of a script about a domestic helper and her film producer boss.
Having steered Paw Hee-ching to her first best actress honour in 2008 with The Way We Are, Hui has again helped relaunch a veteran's career. Since Venice, Ip has added three more prizes for her role as a domestic helper - including the best actress title at Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards. The record number of prizes has led to speculation she is a shoo-in at the Hong Kong Film Awards next month.
What drew her to A Simple Life, Ip said, was Hui's understated way of telling the story of Tao, an ailing amah for a jet-setting film producer (Andy Lau Tak-wah). And her preparations for the role were made easier by the fact that her character is based on the real-life domestic helper of the film's producer, Roger Lee Yun-lam.
Ip said she did a lot of additional research, such as talking to two retired maids to understand more about their lives - a meeting that depressed her, she said.
"One of them said she needed an operation for her leg and she had to pay for that herself," Ip said.
"I asked her why her employers didn't foot the bill - since it's clearly stated in the law, just as it protects Filipino domestic helpers. But she brushed that comment aside, said she was happy enough that they visited her now and then. It's painful to see that they didn't know they were being abused."
More anguish was to follow when she visited homes for the elderly to acknowledge the circumstances in which the real Tao spent her final days. She remembered hearing stories about how some residents were simply abandoned at the homes by their families. And she recoiled when she recalled the pungent smells and confined living spaces of the places she visited.
Ip said the shocking revelations during her research for A Simple Life rival those she had while preparing for her role as a middle-aged sex worker in Rachel Zen's Cream, Soda and Milk in 1981.
"That was the first time I had a look at where real prostitutes worked and lived," Ip said.
"I was shown their rooms and told how they operated - it is still firmly etched in my mind.
"And to see how helpless they were, being marginalised by everyone and seeing their own daughters following in their footsteps. It was heartbreaking."
Her harrowing performance in Cream, Soda and Milk brought her first film honour - a Golden Horse for best supporting actress.
On screen, Ip is best known for her portrayals of single mothers struggling with their lives as part of the city's downtrodden underclass.
Those roles were a sharp contrast with her public persona in the early days of her career. The daughter of a hotel manager, Ip released her first album in 1969. She then became a programme presenter and comedienne at Rediffusion Television, the precursor to Asia Television, in the early 1970s.
While establishing herself as a singer in the early 1980s, Ip also began the shift from television to film, playing small parts in Tsui Hark's Dangerous Encounters - First Kind and Patrick Tam Ka-ming's Love Massacre.
Both films are now regarded as landmarks in the so-called Hong Kong New Wave cinema movement. Meatier roles came with more mainstream fare in the late 1980s and 1990s, in dramas such as The Unwritten Law (the first of many subsequent on-screen collaborations with Lau, her Simple Life co-star), or comedies such as Dances with the Dragon and Fight Back to School 2.
Working with Hui - a stalwart of the New Wave movement - has brought Ip's film career full circle, but the actress says she does not have any plans to return to acting full-time. Instead, she said she was keen to revive her music career and find a backer for a series of concerts.
"I hope to stage shows, where people would say they were there to listen to Deanie Ip rather than to watch her," she said.
With her re-emergence on the big screen, that just might happen. But one thing's for sure - that simple life is just the stuff of movies for Ip. (SCMP)