Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
"It's the economy, stupid!"  Johnnie To's latest film starts off its one-day odyssey with an unmotivated murder in a low rent tenement building and a sales-motivated showcase of a high end condo with fabulous views.  A cop tours both, one for his job, and the other for his wife - who is probably more orgasmic about the space than she is during sex.  Since the honest working cop has a solution to neither of these situations, he opts to wait and see.  This is a strategy that nobody else uses in the 'go-go-go' tone of the market-obsessed Hong Kong depicted in the film.  In the meantime, a securities and mortgage sales lady is at the bottom rung of her sales team, and is concerned about being turfed from her job by her no nonsense boss, and is forced to hard-sell high risk investments to just about everyone who walks into her office.  This includes a wealthy loan shark who delights in exposing and subverting the nickel-and-dime service fees and petty incentives of the big banks right down to the free coffee and mints with each visit.  It also includes a senior who knows nothing about the stock market and merely wants to 'make money.'  Don't we all?  Further complicating things is Panther and Buzzard who each scam in their own petty crime circles, and have gotten themselves in desperate need of some real money really fast fast.  All of these characters see their collective fortunes rise and fall with the rough and tumble way of financial market fluctuations.  It is a fun bit of satire in how everyone in Hong Kong is obsessed with the financials of things, and they've all gotten into the high stakes gambling world of 21st century money markets.  A scene near the end of the film has almost every character in fear and ecstasy waiting for their particular horse to cross the finish line.  One might consider this a less-bloody companion piece to Pang Ho-Cheung's Dream Home a film where its heroine will commit gore-soaked murders to lower the price of her condo, but Life Without Principle is a far more complicated story and a fair bit more fun.

It's been interesting as of late to see the films of Johnnie To depart from the usual shoot-em-up action pictures, and go in so many different directions, romantic comedies and dramas.   Case in point, Life Without Principle is probably his most densely plotted film since the interconnected Election I and II,  and while it is certainly a crime picture, it is free of usual gun violence and mass murder.  The only difference (or maybe not) is that in the financial world there is ostensibly some sort of paper trail to the guilty whereas in the Triad world, it is all on your word.  The latter business is demonstrated to perhaps be more honest but certainly a fair bit more straightforward.  The common currency however is greed, and the only two characters in the picture that are not driven by it in a wholesale fashion, Panther and the Cop, could be considered the heroes, one might guess.  The highest form of heroism postulated here would be to keep everything out of the markets and invest in the here and now, not the future or the rampant materialism that seems to rule the planet.  Less likely to be killed on the service fees. 

The narrative unfolds from multiple perspectives and as a result, ever so slightly out of order, this one requires a fair bit of concentration if you want to keep up with it.  Financial jargon is thrown around with the dialogue rhythms and considered pretense of David Mamet.  The juggling act of all the tangled schemes and dreams are just as convoluted as his con-artist films.  Life Without Principle often plays like a TV stock ticker, bits and pieces of the character's circumstances flying by, their situation being up or down from moment to moment.  It's as breathless, in its own way, as the opening one-take shoot-out in Breaking News or the rolling mounds of paper-garbage in Vengeance.  That would be my chief complaint about the picture, that none of the characters exist beyond their immediate material desires, but when you see the Rube Goldberg machine that To and his three screenwriters have accomplished, it is hard not to step back and marvel at its construction.  They make some sallying (if in our post 2008 world, a bit obvious) points about how darn arbitrary things are. To might reign in a bit of his satirical sting with the films upbeat ending,  but it is in keeping with the insouciant musical score and relatively light-hearted tone, even if this is a comedy about financial ruin.  Come to think of it, the arbitrary nature of the whole resolution is in keeping with the current economic collapse even as it turns things completely on its ear.  It is as if the film, like most of us, only considers such things as the global economy, on a minute by minute time scale.  Nobody, except for perhaps the honest cop are in things for the long game, and even then seemingly stable situations are not beyond a deus ex machina or two.  If it is not made clear above, there are plenty of thrills and surprises - I've not even mentioned the child or the gigantic bag of money that come into play along the way - located in the well meshed plotting.  This is anything but laissez-faire screenwriting.

Life Without Principle

  • Johnnie To
  • Kin-Yee Au
  • Ka-kit Cheung
  • Ben Wong
  • Nai-Hoi Yau
  • Tin-Shing Yip
  • Ching Wan Lau
  • Wing-Cheung Cheung
  • Richie Jen
  • Terence Yin
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Johnnie ToKin-Yee AuKa-kit CheungBen WongNai-Hoi YauTin-Shing YipChing Wan LauWing-Cheung CheungRichie JenTerence YinCrimeDrama

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