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A Second Look: Johnnie To's 'Life Without Principle'

The Hong Kong action master delivers a tense (yet almost violence-free) tale about economic emergencies.

June 10, 2012|By Dennis Lim, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Denise Ho in "Life Without Principle."
Denise Ho in "Life Without Principle." (Indomina Releasing )

The ongoing economic crisis already has inspired its share of cinematic forays: the documentary indictment"Inside Job,"for instance, and the dramas"Margin Call"and"The Company Men,"which consider the meltdown from the perspectives, respectively, of the perpetrators and the downsized.

But no movie on the subject has combined populist outrage, social critique and entertainment value with as much flair as Hong Kong director Johnnie To's "Life Without Principle" (2011), new to DVD andBlu-ray from Indomina Releasing.

It's no surprise that To, one of the most prolific director-producers in Hong Kong genre cinema, would be up to the task of tackling the crisis head on. The quick pace of Hong Kong production allows for a certain up-to-the-minute responsiveness (details of the 2010 Greek debt crisis and European Union bailout flicker past on television screens in "Life Without Principle").

Even in his action films about the criminal underworld ("Election" and "Election 2" being perhaps the best known), To often had a sharp eye for the motivating forces of greed and materialism. And Hong Kong, as a former British colony and longtime business capital of Asia now locked in a complicated relationship with an ever more capitalist mainland China, makes for an interesting vantage point from which to observe the ripple effects of international financial markets on day-to-day life.

To is no stranger to intricate tales — he tends to arrange his characters in chess-piece configurations, and his most memorable plots resemble deadly efficient contraptions. "Life Without Principle" represents perhaps his most sophisticated use of puzzle-like storytelling.

(The Rube Goldberg tendency is even more apparent in the excellent To-produced "Accident," a 2009 film directed by Soi Cheang, just out on DVD andBlu-ray from Shout Factory. Full of precisely choreographed set pieces, it concerns a contract killer who stages his murders as elaborate death-trap accidents — a kind of reverse-angle "Final Destination.")

Set over a hectic three-day period, "Life Without Principle" connects three characters — all in need of money and all in some way affected by a global market collapse. Teresa (Denise Ho), an investment adviser at a bank, is struggling to meet her quotas. Panther (To regular Lau Ching-wan), a low-level gang member scrounging for bail money, falls into a black-market stock trading scheme. Cheung (Richie Jen), a stoic policeman, investigates several murders while fighting with his wife, who's badgering him to buy an apartment.

Loosely divided into thirds, "Life Without Principle" begins with Teresa's story — a slow-burning moral thriller confined to high-pressure office spaces — which comes to a head as she stumbles on a client beaten to death in her building's underground parking lot. The film loops back to recount Panther's involvement in a more freewheeling and absurdist segment. In its final third the film moves forward from the murder that connects the strands — intercutting between Teresa's and Panther's respective quandaries and weaving in Cheung's story.

To is a gifted formalist, a deft orchestrator of motion and space, and especially in the Panther section, "Life Without Principle" is a quintessential portrait of Hong Kong's bustling urban environment, all mirrored reflections and chrome-and-neon sleekness. But with a couple of striking exceptions, the film also makes do without To's signature eruptions of violence. Instead it builds tension through stock tickers, PowerPoint screens and finance jargon; the most harrowing sequence is a drawn-out exchange between Teresa and an elderly woman she persuades to invest in a high-risk fund.

"Life Without Principle" bears an outward resemblance to the voguish genre of the panoramic ensemble movie in which plots conveniently converge and characters repeatedly and unwittingly cross paths with one another. But To's film is both more playful and more purposeful than such grandiose contrivances as "Babel" and "Crash."

The goal here is not to reveal our cosmic interconnectedness but to show the parallel — and linked — workings of legal and illegal capitalist systems. From the punning title (borrowed from a classic Thoreau essay on right livelihood) to the equation of bankers with gangsters, and stock-market speculation with backroom gambling, To's sardonic point of view is never in doubt.

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