Directed by: Johnnie To.
Written by: Kin-Yee Au & Ka-kit Cheung & Ben Wong & Nai-Hoi Yau & Tin-Shing Yip.
Starring: Lau Ching Wan (Panther), Richie Ren (Cheung Ching Fong), Denise Ho (Teresa), Myolie Wu (Connie), Lo Hoi-pang (Yuen), So Hang-suen (investor).
Every time I watch a Johnnie To movie, I anxiously await the gunfights. More than any other filmmaker in Hong Kong right now, To is the one who has taken over for the likes of John Woo as an expert action filmmaker. His gunfights in films like Breaking News, Election and Election II, Vengeance and Full Time Killer (to name but a few of his films) are expertly crafted, and unlike American action films, not cut to shit with rapid fire editing. John Woo described his films as ballet with bullets, and To has a similar style. He is one of the best action film directors in the world right now.
This was very much the case when I sat down to watch his latest. Life Without Principle. But a strange thing happened as I watched the film – I got so invested in the different characters in the movie, the expertly crafted story, and the fast paced storytelling employed by To, that I barely noticed that he didn’t have any action set pieces in the film at all. By the end of the movie, I realized that I had seen perhaps To’s best film to date – and it didn’t even contain the type of action he is best known for.
The movie basically has three plot threads – all of them revolving around the financial crisis. In the first one, we see a woman whose job it is to sell stocks to people for a major Hong Kong bank. Obviously, the riskier the stock, the more than bank wants to sell it – and she has a quota to meet and could be out of a job if she doesn’t meet it. The problem is, anyone who knows about stocks, knows that the bank are ripping you off with bank fees and would rather invest themselves for far less – and anyone who doesn’t know about stocks, shouldn’t be investing in this sort of stock anyway, which means you have to lie to them to get them to buy. It appears her co-workers have no problem with doing so – but she has a conscience.
The second story line is about a group of gangsters. Even they seem to have trouble raising funds recently – their once posh banquets have now fallen on hard time, with fewer tables and fancily named vegetarian entrées to disguise the fact that they are cheap. They have even lost some of the ranks to the financial trade themselves – you can’t make enough money being a gangster, so you may as well trade stock. Panther is perhaps the only loyal gangster left – he hopes from one of his “sworn brothers” to the next, getting them all out of jams.
The third story line is about a police Inspector, who is called out to several crimes throughout the movie (he really is the unifying character of the movie). While he appears to be just a cop with no involvement in the financial crisis, his wife gets him involved anyway – going from wanting to buy a new apartment, to insisting they do so when they unexpectantly become the guardians of the little sister he didn’t even know he had. Of course, she buys at just the wrong time – when the bottom starts to fall out.
To weaves these stories together with ruthless efficiency. There is murder and bloodshed in the film to be sure, but it’s low-key compared to most of To’s other efforts. The message is simple and direct – there really is no difference between the cutthroat world of high finance and the cutthroat world of gangsters. Like last year’s Margin Call, Life Without Principle shows just how far bankers will go to make money – not caring who they hurt in the process. Of the two, I think I prefer this one – To’s film is less preachy than Margin Call, and a hell of a lot more entertaining. Sure, the ending could use a little work (I don’t think it needs the happy ending that gets tacked on here), but overall I think Life Without Principle shows To at the height of his powers – even if there are no gunfights to speak of.