HKAFF 2011: LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE Review

James Marsh, Asian Editor
[Giving this review a bump as Johnnie To's latest opens the 2011 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival tonight.]

Hong Kong is a city driven by greed and the desire for wealth. While power and riches may be a universal goal, nowhere else is it so singularly channelled through quick-fix investments and playing the stock market. Whether you are a white collar worker, old aged pensioner or good-for-nothing street punk, if you live in Hong Kong chances are you have a little something invested somewhere on the Hang Seng Index. Gambling is a way of life in this city and status is measured in profoundly materialistic terms. Because of this, the financial crisis of 2008 sent shockwaves into every corner of the city, and three years later the subject of loss and recouping one's wealth features heavily in popular entertainment. 

LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE follows the fortunes and misfortunes of three wildly different people over the course of a couple of days and how their lives are impacted by the murder of a loan shark. We are first introduced to Police Inspector Cheung (Richie Jen) working a murder case in a dilapidated housing block while his wife, Connie (Myolie Wu), searches frantically for a new apartment with impressive harbour views. When she goes to the bank, she soon discovers that the service fees and interest rates on her mortgage will quickly spiral out of their financial reach, even with her husband's civil service discount.

The investment officer who must break this bad news is suffering from serious problems of her own. Teresa (Denise Ho) is bottom of her sales team and struggling to find anyone willing to buy her high risk policies. Her stats are so low that her manager doesn't even bother to comment during their weekly meeting and Teresa knows she might be only days away from losing her job. It doesn't help that one of her clients is a cash-flush loan shark (Lo Hoi Pang) who is not only utterly disinterested in anything she tries to push his way, but flaunts his liquidity in front of her, making cash deposits well into the millions while still clamouring for a complimentary cup of coffee.

It is a credit to Johnnie To and the engaging writing of the Milkyway Creative Team that it is 30 minutes into the film before you realise that the purported star, Lau Ching Wan, has yet to make an appearance, but that you have spent the last half-hour totally engaged by characters doing little more than discussing policy terms and mortgage rates. When he does make his entrance, Lau brings some much welcome levity to the proceedings. Brother Panther is a fiercely loyal triad footsoldier, who has failed to rise through the ranks due to his slowwitted and simpleminded nature. Like a faithful dog, Panther sticks close to his boss and is well liked - if not especially well respected. So when his sworn brother Wah (Cheung Siu Fai) is arrested, Panther obediently sets out to gather the cash for his bail, only to become caught up in the money troubles of Brother Lung (Keung Ho Man), who has been forced to turn to our loan shark friend for help.

Audiences coming to LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE looking for the Johnnie To of EXILED or VENGEANCE may be disappointed with what is almost entirely a film about people discussing their various financial misadventures. This is very much the Johnnie To of 2005's ELECTION, almost entirely devoid of action, violence or overtly visual flourishes. This is a film that wants to raise a number of points about the state of society today, where money is the answer to everything and banks and other financial institutions (be they legal or otherwise) exploit our willingness to take a gamble on something we don't completely understand in the hope of making a fast fortune that we haven't rightfully earned.

Lau Ching Wan is all twitches and nervous blinking in a scene-stealing performance as the exploited minion with undeserved self-confidence and an almost total lack of awareness for the world around him. He pinballs from one scene to the next, focused solely on what he believes to be his mission with such enthusiastic cluelessness that you can't help but be enamoured by him, and Lau may well have earned himself at the very least a Hong Kong Film Award nomination come next year. 

However, what Lau's performance threatens to do is overshadow the hugely impressive work of Denise Ho as the tormented and frustrated bank clerk who must blacken her soul on a daily basis to ensure her employers profit from the ignorance and desperation (for the most part) of their customers. Teresa's journey is one rife with inner turmoil and plays out almost entirely across Ho's face and it is to the actress' credit that we remain perpetually in the moment with her as she faces each difficult, potentially life-changing decision. It is also great to see such a strong female character emerge from the notorious Milkyway boys club who is so much more than a romantic pursuit or comedic foil.

There is a lot to like in LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE despite not being easily identifiable as the work of Johnnie To. In my humble opinion his particular brand of honour amongst thieves gangster shtick has become rather stagnant and repetitive, while he clearly still has plenty left to say about the changing face of this fair city. I will always welcome a new flight-of-fancy collaboration with Wai Ka Fai, but while To sits alone in the director's chair, I could not be happier to see him exploring different themes and sharing his unique perspective on Hong Kong society in areas beyond its criminal underbelly.
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