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Overall Rating
4.14

Awesome: 14.29%
Worth A Look85.71%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 0%

1 review, 1 rating


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Life Without Principle
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by Jay Seaver

"Exactly as clever as its English title."
4 stars

It perhaps doesn't mean too much that while films from China have been almost relentless in showcasing prosperity over the last few years, the movies coming out of Hong Kong have cast a steady eye on the economic downturn, with even the genre movies having intelligent commentary on it, rather than just saying that broke people do desperate things. Johnnie To's latest, "Life Without Principle", is often scattered as a thriller, but has moments where he and his Milkyway team tap into the confusion and desperation of the times as well as anybody.

It's a tough market out there; banker Teresa (Denise Ho) is lagging everybody else in her office in sales of their new fund, getting nowhere with her cold calls or her best customer, loan shark Chung Yuen (Lo Hoi-pang). Across town, Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren) and his wife Connie (Wu Myolie) are considering investing in an apartment, but while Cheung is decisive on the job, he keeps putting off decisions in his private life. When a Triad member is arrested at a banquet in honor of the Boss's birthday, it's up to the man's sworn brother Panther (Lau Ching-wan) to raise the money for Brother Wah's bail, but times are tough all over, leading him to seek the help of his friend Lung (Philip Keung), who is now more a stock trader than gangster.

Teresa, Cheung, and Panther are the main three characters, but while the screenplay ties their three strands together in a nifty little knot, it only has the trio themselves briefly pass, with almost all of their interactions indirect. Their stories are at times so thin as to be non-existent: While Panther's stubborn loyalty leads him from one messy situation to another, Cheung faces a set of disconnected situations and Teresa is passively pressured by the ethics of her situation. Long stretches are spent on each story, occasionally doubling back as they intersect, and it does give the feeling that the movie could be tightened up a little. The central thrust seems to be prudence in the face of confusion, although it's not a hard push.

Where the movie impresses is in demonstrating the financial crisis's chaos and confusion. Teresa's story is most notable for how she is an unusual face to put on the banks and investment firms - not a hard-charging alpha male but a slight, hard-working woman who is part of a system that has strayed from its original purpose of serving its customers. Those customers are presented as somewhat complicit in their own downfall; watch So Hang-sheun as Cheng Kun, a sixty-year-old woman who wants her money to accrue faster but is paralyzed by the explanations given that are just beyond her. It's a fascinating series of reaction shots and robotic responses that mirror Panther trying to learn investing as if he were trying to beat a casino game with a system, a classic demonstration of people in throwing their lot in with something they can't comprehend. Financial news on radio and television is a constant murmur of disconnected facts and figures in the background, and every establishing shot after the first (an aptly confusing tangle of wires on top of a building that proves to be a crime scene) is foggier and stormier.

Ms. So is not the only memorable performance in a small role; Philip Keung and Lo Hoi-pang stick out as two crooks with very different outlooks (Keung's Lung is blustery and plugged in, while Lo's Yeun is earthy and practical). The three lead cast members give different types of performances: Lau is all twitches and exaggerated simplicity as Panther, while Ren is grounded as his everyman detective and Ho is doing fine work as Teresa. They're all sympathetic in their own way, although much of the drive and emotion in Cheung's story is supplied by Wu Myolie.

As is usually the case from To's Milkyway Image, the production is smooth and enjoyable, with every component solid. And for all the thematic density that the team is trying to pack in, the movie often has a light touch, from the ironically soothing music used in scene transitions to the awesomely frustrating punchline to Panther's quest for Wah's bail money. There's only one action scene here, but it's a great deal of clever staging and surprises packed into a small space. It would be nice if the plot for Teresa's part of the movie were a little more developed - there's a great, underutilized hook for a caper story in there - but everything else about it is solid and instructive enough that it's hard to complain.

That solidity and those interesting nuggets are enough to recommend "Life Without Principle" (and the double meaning of its English title doesn't hurt). It's not the visceral thrills of To's crime movies and capers, but it does say some interesting things in interesting ways.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=22929&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/18/12 02:38:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/22/12 Justin Venter I enjoyed the concept of this movie, but overall I don't feel as though it was done well 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  16-Mar-2012
  DVD: 29-May-2012

UK
  N/A

Australia
  16-Mar-2012
  DVD: 29-May-2012


Directed by
  Johnnie To

Written by
  Ka-kit Cheung
  Nai-Hoi Yau
  Tin-Shing Yip

Cast
  Ching Wan Lau
  Ken Lo
  Richie Ren
  Denise Ho
  Stephanie Che
  Hoi-Pang Lo



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