Life Without Principle

Life, like the stock market, is full of ups and downs in Johnnie To’s financial crime drama.

“You’re in no shape to be buying stocks right now.”

There have by now been a few films based on the events of the 2008 financial crisis, which saw year-long (or longer) recessions in most of the west, and part of the east. I’ve yet to see any of the big Hollywood ones, like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps or The Big Short but it strikes me as though those stories centres on the lives of the brokers and bankers, but many of the lives most affected were everyday people, barely scraping by as it was.

The preachily-titled Life Without Principle, Johnnie To’s drama about this crisis, is split into three stories, each focused on those exact people. The first deals with Inspector Cheung (Richie Jen), a detective who’s considering buying an apartment with his girlfriend, though can never decide on a place. The markets are tightening, and as a result his partner is encouraging him to make a decision quickly. Then there’s the story of Teresa (Denise Ho), a banker who needs to sell stock in a high risk company or face being fired. When one of her clients leaves behind a big bag of cash and then dies, she has to make a decision on what to do with it. Lastly is Panther (Lau Ching-wan), a gangster whose boss won’t stop getting arrested, forcing him to come up with ways to pay his bail.

All three stories are loosely connected, with the death of Teresa’s client Chung (Lo Hoi-pang) being the ultimate binding tissue – except when I really think about it, I don’t think Cheung had anything to do with that storyline despite it being a murder. It’s really strange that while the stories are relatively simplistic, none of them interweave nearly as much as you’d expected. The bags of money that Panther and Teresa are after aren’t even the same bag. None of the protagonists actually clash with one another, which effectively makes Life Without Principle just three movies sort of squeezed together into something loosely resembling a complete plot.

This wouldn’t be such an issue if Life Without Principle wasn’t so centred on tiny, unnecessary details rather. Every scene has something like this, from in-depth conversations about interest rates, Panther studying the stock market, or newsreaders discussing the UV index there’s so much focus put on the minutiae of everyday life that one can’t help but think that’s the point. In a way this helps give the story a sense of verisimilitude, and Johnnie To’s direction is still top notch, but nevertheless it still can’t escape the fact that whenever the narrative stops to allow for these moments, the entire movie also grinds to a halt.

By the 45 minutes mark, we’re still being introduced to people and stakes, though that’s going to bn inevitable when dealing with this kind of structure. It’s a hard movie to judge. I’d be lying if I said that life Without Principles was bad but it is quite boring in many different places. There’s a better film in here somewhere, if it was edited better, perhaps. The performances are good, and To’s themes of financial ruin and survival during difficult times remain prominent throughout (one lame happy ending notwithstanding), but at the end of the day, much like modern day banking, I found my interest pretty low throughout.

Verdict: As much of a downer as the market, To’s financial drama has promise, but isn’t really worth investing in.

Overall entertainment: 5.5/10
Violence: 3/10
Sex: 0/10
Atmosphere: 8/10
Panther: He sure does blink a lot, huh
How to make it rich in Hong Kong: Take over the minibus station, of course!
Sister subplot: Right the fuck out of nowhere.

Life Without Principles (2011)
Cantonese

Director: Johnnie To
Writer: Yau Nai-hoi, Yip Tin-shing, Ben Wong, Jeff Cheung

CAST

Lau Ching-wan – Panther
Richie Jen – Inspector Cheung Ching-fong
Denise Ho – Teresa Chan
Myolie Wu – Connie
Lo Hoi-pang – Chung Yuen
So Hang-suen – Cheng Siu-kuen

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