Life Without Principle

Auds who've come to expect pyrotechnic action will be disappointed in this almost perversely slow burning, sometimes slapdash criss-crosser.

Seizing on the ongoing world banking crisis to add a spin to an otherwise ho-hum crime story, Hong Kong helmer Johnnie To finds greed to be the root of all evil in his patchy “Life Without Principle.” Auds who’ve come to expect pyrotechnic action will be disappointed in this almost perversely slow-burning, sometimes slapdash criss-crosser that intersects the stories of a bank employee, a cop and a clutch of small-time triad gangsters all chasing a fast buck. Pic will find it challenging to leverage interest from international buyers, but should enjoy solid returns at home.

Teasingly, the pic’s opening shot features pools of blood in a shabby apartment building corridor in Kowloon, but thereafter it takes nearly an hour before any onscreen violence kicks in, and even then it’s more comic than gut-churning. That blood belonged to an elderly man (never seen) attacked by his neighbor, a fracas under investigation by inspector Cheung Jin-fong (Richie Jen, a regular To alum like so many of the cast members here). But Cheung is called away from business by his wife Connie (Myolie Wu) to view an apartment she’s desperate to buy as an investment, a purchase cautious Cheung isn’t quite ready to make.

Looking to raise coin, Connie will eventually end up at the desk of bank employee Teresa (Canto-pop thrush Denise Ho) who’s afraid she’s going to get fired unless she increases her sales of financial products to her wealthier clients. In an audaciously protracted sequence that will test auds’ appetites for the minutiae of investment banking, Teresa is seen talking a gullible older femme (So Hang-shuen) into putting her life’s savings into a high-risk fund. That turns out to be a bad idea, because the next day the Greek economy goes bankrupt, wiping out a large proportion of the fund’s value.

On the day of the crisis, another of Teresa’s clients, loan shark Yuen (Lo Hoi-pang), comes in to withdraw HK$10 million ($1.2 million) to lend to triad Panther (Lau Ching-wan, in fine comic form here) and his associate Lung (Philip Keung, also a hoot) who’s just lost a fortune of his boss’s money on the futures black market. For complex reasons, Yuen ends up leaving half the withdrawal behind in Teresa’s office, and is then killed in the bank’s garage, which leaves half the money floating around the streets of Hong Kong with Panther and Lung , while Teresa — aware that Yuen is dead and the money is untraceable — agonizes over whether to keep the other half.

While the pic may frustrate fans who like To’s pacey actioners, those who more appreciate the helmer for his ironic look at contempo mores will find much to relish in his ruthless portrait of avariciousness, seen as endemic in every walk of society, from hardened gangsters to seemingly nice little old ladies. Hardly a single character in the film is wholly sympathetic, and that even goes for Cheung, who in an underdeveloped subplot is seen, while his father dies of cancer, trying to avoid adopting his young half-sister, whose mother has run away to the mainland.

Given the number of other loose plot strands and stray characters who pop in and out of the action, the pic starts to look like it was assembled with more haste than usual by the ever-prolific To. There’s a zesty, manic energy about the perfs that carries things along, even in the abundant scenes where characters stare at computer screens trying to read the runes of stock market quotes. Still, the helmer’s fascination with systems and organizations is so upfront here that it nearly stifles the drama.

Subtle editing by regular To collaborator David Richardson enhances the different flavors of the pic’s main three story strands and helps to create a sense of closure when the whole whirligig comes to a halt. Subtitles will have to be refined on further prints to make what’s going on clearer for those who don’t speak Cantonese or understand investment banking.

Life Without Principle

Hong Kong

  • Production: A Media Asia Distribution release of a Media Asia Film presentation of a Milkyway Image production. (International sales: Media Asia Group, Hong Kong.) Produced by Johnnie To. Executive producers, John Chong. Directed by Johnnie To. Screenplay, Milkyway Creative Team, Au Kin-yee, Wong King-fai.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Cheng Siu-keung, To Hung-mo; editor, David Richardson; production designer/costume designer, Sukie Yip; sound (Dolby Digital), Mak Chi-on; sound designer, Benny Chi; line producer, Elaine Chu. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 8, 2011. (Also in Toronto, San Sebastian, Pusan film festivals.) Running time: 107 MIN.
  • With: With: Lau Ching-wan, Richie Jen, Denise Ho, Myolie Wu, Lo Hoi-pang, So Hang-shuen, Philip Keung, Tam Ping-man, Cheung Siu-fai, Felix Wong, Wong Chi-yin, J.J. Jia, Stephanie Che, Yoyo Chan, Anson Leung, Terence Yin. (Cantonese dialogue)