|Index||9 reviews in total|
The long-gestating Johnnie To movie 'Life Without Principle' chooses as
its theme the interminable greed of mankind, set against the backdrop
of the current financial crisis. Taking almost three years for the
auteur to get it off the page onto the screen, it is also his most
narratively complex film since 'Election', intertwining the stories of
a bank employee, a cop and two triad gangsters over the course of one
fateful day when the Greek economy essentially goes 'kaput'.
Unfolding quite independently of each other at first, To requests the patience of his audience as he slowly builds up each narrative thread to flesh out the key characters. First in line is bank employee Teresa (Denise Ho), who is under pressure from the team manager to meet her sales targets for a new complex financial product before the New Year. She makes cold calls from a list of bank customers, the derision she faces enough to make one think twice about being mean to the person on the other end of the line in similar real-life situations.
The focus of this segment is Teresa's persuasion of an elderly woman (So Hang-Shuen) to invest her life savings into a high-risk fund, despite the mismatch between the investment product and the client's risk appetite. The client laments about the bank's low interest rates on deposits, and Teresa sees an opportunity to be less than scrupulous- despite her nagging conscience. This is certainly a parallel between this and our very own DBS 'High Notes 5' saga not too long ago- and To mines the realities of this sequence to highlight the pitfalls many ordinary citizens often fall into when making poorly informed investment decisions.
To also uses this segment to introduce two supporting characters- the balding loan shark Yuen (Lo Hoi-Pang) who gets robbed immediately after withdrawing five million from the bank; and the soon-to-be-married Connie (Myolie Wu) frustrated at her fiancée's reluctance at buying an apartment for investment. Yuen will figure later in the second story thread led by triad runner Panther (Lau Ching Wan) and his buddy Lung (Philip Keung), who runs an illegal business operation dabbling in Internet stock trading.
Thanks to Lau's fine turn playing the exceedingly righteous Panther with just the right balance of levity and gravity, this is easily the most colourfully entertaining segment- and because of the gangster milieu also the one which To's fans will find most familiar. Using the first half to emphasise Panther's servility as he tries to post bail for a fellow triad honcho (Eddie Cheung), To's investment in character development pays off in understanding Panther's loyalty to Lung and the extent he is willing to go to help Lung out of his financial doldrums.
The third, and perhaps least developed, story concerns Inspector Cheung (Ritchie Jen), whose dedication to his work is another reason for his fiancé Connie's frustration. Though Cheung is seen earlier crossing paths with Panther, it is Cheung's heroism saving another elderly man from committing suicide and his subsequent change in perspective that this segment is concerned with- though there Is a severely undercooked subplot involving Cheung's father's death from cancer and the fate of his young half-sister. This and the other two seemingly disparate plot threads only coalesce towards the last half hour of the film- but rest assured that To rewards your patience with a riveting conclusion that connects the various characters brilliantly, albeit with some degree of deus ex machina especially towards the end.
But beyond the plotting, To's film is also extremely meaningful as a reflection of the interconnectedness of our livelihoods with the ups and downs of the world economy. Bearing great thematic relevance and prescience, the movie paints a stark picture of how the very wellbeing of ordinary and disparate folk can be affected so drastically by something happening on a different continent. It is also not afraid to expose the flaws within the growing complexities of our financial industries, which entraps the sweat-soaked dollars and cents of good hardworking people.
If the above discourse on the film's themes isn't yet clear enough, then let us also state categorically that those looking for To's trademark shoot-em-up actioners will likely be disappointed. There is nary a shootout in sight, nor a bullet fired for that matter, but To's gamble to attempt a multi-strand narrative built around pertinent social issues (think 'Traffic', 'Crash' or even this autumn's 'Contagion') pays off handsomely- thanks also to solid acting from To's usual band of regulars and some expert editing from David Richardson. As the fruit of To's labour for the past three years, it also reaffirms his position as one of the best, if not the best, directors in Hong Kong today.
Written by Cheung Ka Kit, Yau Nai Hoi and Yip Tin Shing, Life Without
Principle aims itself squarely at financial markets and the corrupt
ecosystem at play, and spends a significant first arc in combining
often heard and experienced elements into the story. Denise Ho plays
Teresa, a banking relationship officer measured by her sales figures,
which means the more she pushes for the sales of riskier products, the
better her commission and profitability to the bank. We understand her
pressure and predicament, but one's values of caution gets thrown out
the window when one's job is on the line, made worse by a pushy
manager. Late nights and cold calls (getting the treatment any of us
will usually dish out) become the norm, and having two key customers in
Lo Hoi Pang's shady money-lender, an extremely savvy investor but of
course, and in So Hang Shuen's heartland elderly woman who has little
knowledge of finance other than to put her money in the bank, provided
that opportunity for broad contrast in customers who know how to work
the bank, and those who the bank knows how to work.
You'll even come to the belief that banks everywhere provides meagre, negligible savings interest rate only to entice you to its complicated, though sexier financial instruments that scream high returns, but comes with the fine print the thickness of a phone directory and print that only an ant could read. But that won't translate well on film, so a similar element in taped conversations and going through the motion, which many of us are susceptible to, get played out instead. You can't help but to shake your head at what's put on screen as a third person witnessing how things develop, although how many of us can say we won't get tempted when actually put in the same hot seat with the promise of money being made thrown at us, that will come with a signature and a trust that the bank, a business entity that exists to make profits from anyone, anything and anywhere, has your interest at heart?
The other major arc is equally brilliant with To retaining the gangster element in his stories, with Lau Ching Wan starring as a non too bright gangster muscle, loyal to a fault and always there for his sworn brothers. His honest nature makes him the unofficial trusted treasurer of this boss, in a time where even gangsters have problems with recruiting and retaining men, who will walk off at the first signs of trouble. So much for loyalty these days, with the attitudes of the strawberry generation being felt even to the underworld.
Fans of Lau Ching Wan will undoubtedly see some shades of a popular character he played for in one of the blockbuster television series of its day involving the financial markets, especially in a build up to an ironic twist, but he also added some performing layers to his character and somehow his simpleton endears. His role here serves to highlight how even gangster have to change with the times of economic uncertainty, where knives and guns get traded off for computers and market savvy, making money through the push of a button rather than the heydays of fighting for territory and seeking one's riches through the traditional revenue pipelines of prostitution, gambling and drugs. It took quite a while to get to where it was supposed to, but as the adage goes it's never about the destination but the journey, where Lau mesmerizes with his performance in a one man tour de force, and a slew of Milkyway regulars, with the conspicuously absence of Lam Suet, surely made this arc the best of the lot, from Eddie Cheung, Felix Wong, Law Wing Cheong, and a whole lot of others springing up to lend support.
And the last arc may serve as a filler since it's the most spread out of the three, but no less satisfying, and I thought it was easily identifiable here since it speaks directly at our pursuit of economic aspiration and the incredible long hours at work we put. Ritchie Jen stars Cheung the cop whose wife Connie (Myolie Wu) desires that swanky new condominium that they can barely afford its mortgage. Living within or beyond one's means is a decision the couple has to take, although in Cheung's case, he seems to be more at home spending time at work, rather than to address his deteriorating personal life, until an incident, as always, puts things back into proper perspective.
While the narrative is presented in a non-linear fashion, the narrative is incredibly easy to follow, with each significant moment setting the pace for those that follow, or to provide the audience with the sense of "if only he/she knew", which in fact is exactly what our attitudes are in life when we sit down to analyze seemingly disparate issues, and how close they each come toward one another than we could have had imagined. Here the Greek economic crisis, something so macro and relatively far away, shows how closely inter-connected we all are in today's global village, where concerns and decisions made thousands of miles away can impact the individual man in profound ways.
Life Without Principle is a carefully crafted film that can work anywhere, but I'm glad Johnnie To got to it first, and provided one thought-provoking and gripping film that is wonderfully contemporary. Certainly one of the best films of the year, and is highly recommended. I'll probably dip into the DVD as well for its original Cantonese language track when the time comes, to view this just as it was intended.
His film always leave s smirk or a smile on my face. And that is enough
and that is what I expected.
If I wanted a big laugh I would go for campy movie or a Japanese over the top serial, like Unburo Deka (sp). But Johnny's film are intricate character studies. And all of it's character that is.
Here I especially enjoy Lau, and his current of ex-triad associates. They are hilarious!!! The Big-Eye character, the recycle guy, the others you see at the banquet.
Sure, you get all the different message of luck vs planning, honesty vs white lies, the power(or evil need) of money ..etc. But it's not didactic, in your face. It is woven in a storey. Yeah,it's emphasized in the banking sequence with the old lady. But it worked in a dramatic way.
Denise Ho is a surprise to me. Sure I'm not in HK and don't know the scene. But she's natural and understated not to overact here at all. While Lau's character brings some energy to the whole subtle mood.
Wathched the deleted scene also. There's another storey there. Not sure if it is too extraneous but explained something. And I would say this one is more attractive a storey than the housing one. Although albeit the housing issue is more easily related to the common folks.
But overall, very enjoyable. Tightly weaved, correctly casted, handled with care.
Johnnie To, the Godfather of Hong Kong, is the doughtiest and arguably
the only Hong Kong film auteur still safeguards the pedigree of the
untainted spirit from its halcyon days, after the detrimental
ramifications of the censorship battlefield with mainland Chinese
policy, which put Hong Kong film industry into a retrograde quagmire,
only from Johnnie To's prolific output one (especially for those who
has witnessed or influenced by Hong Kong films' golden era, e.g.
1980-1997) can retrieve some salve from the bleak situation (underpins
by the poignant slogan "Hong Kong Film is Dead!).
LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE has its clear-sighted objective dispassionateness, adopts 3 discrete narratives from a cop, a bank clerk and a Triad member (with tentative overlays) all converge with a parking lot homicide case, and intriguingly delineates the current situation in Hong Kong society under the background of Greece's ecumenic catastrophe, which reflects the anxiety and levity in normal citizens' mind set. A dowdy retired housewife falls prey to the callous investment chicanery, a vivid mirror image of millions of ourselves, bank system embezzles people's hard-earned savings, benefits from the (almost inclusive) profit while shunts all the risky liabilities to each account holder, a deep-rooted capitalism scourge on the modern society. Veteran actress Hang Shuen So conducts a visceral impersonation using her meager appearance as the cipher victim. Denise Ho (an out-of-the-closet lesbian singer and new actress) garnishes the office-confined monotony with her restrained tolerance and discontentment as the conscientious clerk, a subdued archetypal in the white-collar hierarchy.
Versatile actor Ching Wan Lau is the Triad minion, pious to his boss and brothers, although time changes, the Triad business are at the low ebb now, but his foolhardiness resists with a perverse tenderness, in a time when brotherhood can be easily teased as homo-erotic metonymy, his loyalty is far-fetched but resonates with the gangster nostalgia which permeates the genre's best moments (To's ELECTION 2005, 8/10 and TRIAD ELECTION 2006, 8/10 are among the swan songs), Ching Wan Lau experiments a methodological mimicry with blinking-laden vivacity in his character's naive and befuddled persistence.
The third thread germinates from Richie Ran's cop, which ruefully is the weakest link and casts a shadow to the development of the character's below-the-surface tension, the elevator incident with explosive serves the only chilly thrill of the film which feels insatiable for To's generic followers.
The ending mercifully caters for a interim reprieve to the 3 protagonists, but To seems to be as unconvincing as the audiences, the fluke (gamble) is not an elixir, the stopgap is rickety, everyone is still caught in the spiderweb and the exit sign seems too far to reach.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Life Without Principle looks like a crime film, plays like a morality
tale, and unfolds during one of the most significant events in recent
world history. It should come as something of a relief that it is not a
violent potboiler, a moralistic sermon, or a political social study. In
the hands of respected auteur Johnny To, it is so much more and a
completely entertaining jot in filmmaking. Out now on DVD from Vivendi
Entertainment after playing a few US film festivals, but failing to
receive even a limited North American theatrical release, hopefully
this movie will find an enthusiastic audience waiting, it should easily
appeal to a large number of viewers with many different interests and
Set, as it is. with the recent global economical finical meltdown as a back drop. The plot has three different story lines converging as three desperate people's paths cross on the frantic day of the collapse of the Greek government. Taking place in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong, police inspector Cheung (Richie Ren) is investigating the murder of a loan shark, while dealing with a number of personal crises of his own. His wife, Connie (Myolie Wu) is desperate to buy a condo out of their price range, his father is terminally ill, and has left him custody of a young sister, that he never knew existed and who's mother has run off.
A low level, but loyal to a fault triad member named Panther (Lau Ching Wan) tries in vain to get his incarcerated boss, Wah (Siu-Fai Cheung) bailed out of jail, when he comes to the aid of another friend, Lung (Philip Keung) who has made some very dangerous back room deals with triad money.
Last is Teresa (Denise Ho), a bank employee being pressured to meet her quota of new investors and finally pushed to the point of near deception to snare potential investors before a twist of fate makes her future even more uncertain.
The story isn't a preachy one, even though we deal with gamblers, crooks, thieves, swindlers, and other morally ambiguous characters. We get inside their motives, some are greedy, some are honest, some are steadfast, all of them are victims of circumstance, some will win and some will lose. We get a more full understanding of what happens when average people must abandoned their principles too survive.
In the last decade or so producer-director Johnny To, unfairly dismissed at times as being the HK "Jerry Bruckheimer", has developed a strong following with his mostly superb crime thrillers. Titles like the Cannes film festival Palme d'or nominated Vengeance (2009) and Election (2006), with their mixing of elements from American film noir, French new wave, and Hong Kong heroic bloodshed movies. Life Without Principle is somewhat of a departure, it's more in the ambitious style of a Wong Kar Wai film, but many of his themes and stylistic techniques are visible. Also, real hardcore devotes of To's should be aware of his penchant for slipping into other genres at will, including comedies, superhero flicks and dramas, Chow Yun Fat even won a HK Oscar for To's child custody tear jerker All About Ah-long.
Appropriately apathetic camera work and astute editing from Sie-Keung Cheng and David M. Richardson, respectively, two frequent collaborators of To's. They keep the film flowing at a breakneck speed, even when the events sometimes seem rambling or disjointed. These fluid filmmaking techniques also help the movie to over come it's sometimes stodgy opening moments to arrive at a satisfying slow burn of a conclusion.
Life Without Principle is a prime example of the fine film work that is still coming out of Asia, that all too often goes ignored in the western world. Filed with relevant situations and a full understanding of our current global financial situation, not to mention strong amiable characters, even if they are lowlifes. This is the kind of good quality filmmaking that I think a lot of movie goers crave, but can't always find, maybe that's because some of these fine films are being relegated to the backs of the continuously vanishing video store.
I really don't understand the low ratings for this superb film. This is one of the most brilliant films about the current state of the world as reflected in Hong Kong society I've seen, especially as an indictment against the financial markets and banks, as exemplified in the cold reptilian nature of the female banker. The non-plot is seamlessly woven, though there's a tribute to Kieslowski here, and To coaxed great performances from most of his cast. The interwoven lives are gripping in their own roller-coaster way, as fortunes ride up and down not unlike the stock market. The only disappointment for me was the ending - I did not expect that of To, but again, it could have been the nod to Kieslowski that he wrapped it up the way he did.
This is certainly a departure from Johnnie To's usual work, but
nonetheless, it is a film that is easy to like and relate. With the
Greek financial crisis as the backdrop for a story about greed, human
nature and life. It is one of those films that does not feel like a
complete episode, but rather the sums of its parts. What I like about
To's film is that they are so efficient and there is also recurring
themes in all his films life is about taking chances, random events
of luck, expect the unexpected and the human nature of greed. His
ability to present simple stories into a smooth cinematic experience is
simply wonderful to endure. Although the film breaks no new grounds on
the topic of greed in the financial market and especially Hong Kong
people, it is still a worthy addition to 2011's HK cinema. Perhaps two
words that best describe this film would be - simple and efficient.
After all, as Mr. Geeko used to say - "Greed is good"...
Neo rates it 7.5/10
Pale color background, 70's and 80's scene set-up, steady frame shot,
constant tempo, dramatic directing and acting; the film is full of old
day's sentiments, yet it's a story happening in the overwhelmingly
prosperous year 2010. Such a misplacement to reflect the most confusing
and unbreakable issue that is troubling everyone in the metropolis
gives a strong implication of a totally turning upside down era where
boundary between right and wrong doesn't exist anymore. Things
realigned according to past social order cannot stand the wave of time
change; social value, moral standard, principle are all becoming
useless and destroyed. No matter how hard one tries to reset it, it's
no more than a joke that nobody would pay attention.
As people are turning to a dead end corner, surprises might turn up to help. On the other hand, those who think they can figure out everything not losing a penny might not be as wise as they presume they are, or somehow be ruined by their wisdom. Lo and Keung thought they are the winner of the game; even though they persist until the last breath, their fatal ending wouldn't change. Denise Ho and Lau, playing honest roles ever, should have been the loser of the game, but thanks to an accident, they both live a decent life thereafter without spending an effort. It's not strange or new to see fate or coincidence happening to the characters in Johnny To's film, but being put in a world of misplacement, this time it looks more like an accident than it's under fate, leading to an even more absurd ending where the world is totally unpredictable that one can't reason it. Mankind relies on accident and luck to settle down, that is a laughable grief.
The film, however; doesn't seem to rule out hard work could bring return, at least Wong, the role of recyclable paper collector, has enough significance. Unfortunately just a while later we see an old working class having fallen under the fade-out group of the society trying to kill himself. The script is actually talking to itself debating over the subject. It even further elaborates by condemning through the characters' dialog. The most remarkable one is the confession by JJ Jia in the police station. Her brilliant acting has turned uncontrollably subconscious contradiction within into reasonable greed. What a marvelous demonstration of metropolis ridiculousness!
Sensibility might not win in this battle against absurdity. Richie Ren has been in a terribly confusing state struggling deeply within throughout the entire film. Not to mention the incidents he faces as a police inspector, he has yet to deal with a lot of personal problems such as his wife's persistence to purchase an apartment under the high market price, a seriously sick father and the sudden arrival of a younger sister by the mysterious wife of his father. These, however; are not dramatic enough to constitute irony effect, so the director has to arrange his wife coming to a sudden awakening by seeing him would die as the ending of the story. All these have come together too fast that Richie Ren is unable to react. He acts in such a slow-reflex way that has conveyed his thoughts of questioning "what's going on with my fate?" He rather believes it's all a coincidence. By taking away one's fate, he loses control over his life and all that left to him is coincidence. He has to pray for this for the rest of his life.
Although the script is full of condemns to reality, the director has remained himself as an outsider with a very calm view over what is happening. The shots are all apathetic, just like people ignoring what is happening around them every day. This metaphor is too good, really too good that it might need another accidental coincidence to wake up the audiences before they would even notice it.
"Life Without Principle" ("Dyut Meng Gam") was nothing at all what I
had expected it to be. Was it better than I had anticipated? No, hardly
As much as I enjoy Hong Kong cinema, then this movie failed to utterly embrace and capture my liking. Why? Well, I guess it was because the movie tried to tell different tales that were spinning around the same axis - an axis that was a bag with 5 million Hong Kong dollars - but ultimately failed to wrap all stories up in a satisfying way.
Ching Wan Lau (playing Panther) really carried the movie most of the time and did a good job with his portrayal of a rather twitchy and edgy guy in the Hong Kong gangster milieu. But also Denise Ho (playing Teresa) put on a memorable performance in the movie. Richie Ren (playing inspector Cheung) was also doing a good job. Terence Yin (playing Mr. Sung) could have use a lot more screen-time, because his role was too small and had potential to bring something greater to the movie had he been given the chance.
There were aspects of the movie that were great, but in overall the movie didn't fully deliver. And of course, it is not all Hong Kong movies that bring the goods to the table, and for me, then "Life Without Principle" failed to do so miserably on some levels.
I doubt that I will ever put this movie on again for a second watching, as it just doesn't have that much leverage or that much to offer. Director Johnnie To has far better movies to his directing career.
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