Living the life

Confronting sickness and death on screen sets a veteran musing on learning from the young, and how she wants to go, eventually.

FOR her role as an elderly servant whose body starts to fall apart after a stroke, Deanie Ip had to gradually change her posture, gait, the way she speaks and how she feels about things as she struggles to come to terms with her failing health.

Was that difficult for the Hong Kong actress who, at 64, personifies glamour and grace?

“No, it was not,” says Ip in a phone interview early March from Hong Kong, prior to her visit to Kuala Lumpur last Friday. “With all the other aunties and older relatives around me, I felt I could very well understand the psyche of a senior citizen. I also used to observe my mother, who was about 100 when she died.

Lau and Ip at the premiere of the Ann Huidirection in Hong Kong on March 1.

“Also, there were many old people in the streets of Hong Kong whom I could watch and mimic. Besides, I’m quite old myself, so it wasn’t such a stretch,” she jests.

Yes, Ip is so convincing as Tao Jie (Sister Peach) in A Simple Life that the awards have been rolling in. Last September, she took home the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the 68th Venice International Film Festival. This was followed by similar awards last November at Taiwan’s 48th Golden Horse Awards and Estonia’s 15th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival Jury Awards, and the 18th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards early this month.

More may come: she has been nominated as leading actress for the 6th Asian Film Awards and the 31st Hong Kong Film Awards (HKFA), which will be announced on March 19 and April 15, respectively.

When asked what was the most memorable scene, for her, in A Simple Life, Ip says: “I have to say it was the one where I was supposed to lie dead, in a coffin. The coffin had a strangely sweet, sour scent.” Unfortunately, this scene ended up on the cutting room floor.

But viewers will get to see lots of senior citizens struggling to cope with their daily routines because most of the filming took place in a home for the aged.

“It was mainly the smell that left a deep impression on me,” Ip says of her visits to the home. “It was everywhere, the smell of those who are unable to get up to clean themselves.

“If I am unable to even maintain my own personal hygiene, then I would choose to leave. I could not choose the day I was born but I definitely want to choose when to go,” says Ip, who has emphasised this point in interviews with both the Chinese and English media.

Helmed by director Ann Hui, A Simple Life centres on the true story of movie producer Roger Lee (played by Andy Lau, as Roger Leung) and his relationship with Tao, who has served his family for four generations. Some of the family members have died and others have migrated, leaving Roger to live alone with their housekeeper, who was adopted at the age of 13 by his grandmother.

Things take an unusual turn when Tao suffers a stroke, and her master begins to care for her the way she has dutifully taken care of him all his life.

“Such a mutually affectionate relationship is very rare,” says Ip. “Mostly, in real life, the affection is one-sided and not reciprocated. Often it is the servant who is taken for granted.”

She regrets not having the opportunity to interact with the real Sister Peach, who has died. “But I did get Ann to communicate with the real Roger, who helped by describing what she was like.”

On screen, the relationship between Tao and Roger comes alive, probably due to the fact that Ip and Lau are old friends who last worked together over 20 years ago, in The Truth (1988).

Ip and Lau, who were doing the phone interview together, insisted, after some playful banter, that it had only been 10 years since their last collaboration. “It hasn’t been that long. But Andy has improved by leaps and bounds,” Ip says.

Quiet devotion: Roger Leung (Andy Lau) turns caregiver when Tao Jie (Deanie Ip) is immobilised by a stroke. The affection between ailing housekeeper and young master is mutual in A Simple Life.

“To me, my character was easy to play, while Andy’s role looked most difficult. I thought he handled it very well.

“Being friends with Andy all these years has always been very enjoyable. Collaborating with him also meant I could learn a lot from him. Now that he’s grown up, he’s a whizz in business as well as acting. So I say, old folks should learn from the young,” quips the cheery actress.

Asked to comment on her relationship with Lau, she muses: “I think of him as my ‘little friend’ (child) and he will forever remain that in my heart. And, this little friend is now a very successful entrepreneur and entertainer. I think of myself as his ‘old friend’.”

However, they do not get to see each other often. “We probably meet up only once a year. Andy is a very busy man. I honestly think he is too busy and should spend more time with his family instead. He’s going to have a child soon.” (Lau’s wife, Carol Chu, is expected to deliver in May.)

A Simple Life lured Ip out of semi-retirement: the singer/actress had left the music scene in 1988 and her last feature films – Queen Of Kowloon, Crying Heart, and Don’t Look Back ... Or You’ll Be Sorry – were released in 2000. She credits Hui for that.

“Ann is a director whom I respect very much. I also enjoy watching her films. When she came to me with the script, I felt it was a lot like a French film. And when she told me Roger would be played by Andy, I accepted my role without further thought.”

Winning the best actress awards has put the spotlight on Ip, a very private person whose personal life is rarely in the news.

She married at 18 and had a daughter and a son with her husband, H.Y. Cheng, before filing for divorce in 1973 after finding out that he was cheating on her. The divorce proceedings, which dragged on until 1980, led her to remark once that “marriage at age 18 is both brave and stupid”.

Ip began her acting career in the 1970s and has 53 movies under her belt. Among them are My Name Ain’t Suzie and Dances With The Dragon (which bagged her the Best Supporting Actress awards at the HKFA in 1985 and 1991, respectively) and Crying Heart (Best Supporting Actress, Golden Horse Awards, 1999).

She released five albums in the 80s. In the mid-90s, she teamed up with Hong Kong singer Andy Hui to sing Gau Ngo Yu Ho Bat Ngoi Ta (Teach Me How Not To Love Him) and again in 2004, in the award-winning Mei Jung Bat Juk (Imperfection). She last performed in Malaysia at the Deanie Ip Melodic Encounter 2007 Live, in Genting Highlands, Pahang.

When meeting the press in KL last Friday, Ip, when was asked about the prospect of more acclaim, answers frankly: “Yes, I’m really looking forward to winning more awards. I think this is the best role I’ve ever played and I feel it is likely my last chance at taking home more awards.

“At my age, it’s understandably difficult to get good leading roles that will allow me to churn out another performance like this.

“I’m really grateful to Andy and Ann for giving me the opportunity to prove that I can really act,” adds Ip, who looked every inch the movie star in a see-through lacy top with matching gloves, and minimal accesories.

Asked what has stretched her most as an actress, she declares, “Kissing somebody!” She has never had to do that during her acting career, but ...

“Well, maybe except in one particular movie where I was trying to fool this guy, so I dressed up like a man. When he found me in his house, I went up to him and kissed him. He thought I was gay because I was dressed as a man. That’s it.”

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