Set in contemporary Hong Kong with the recent global economic debacles in the background, prolific filmmaker Johnnie To’s 2011 film, Life Without Principle, is less an action thriller as the cover of the current DVD release from Indomina would seem to indicate, than it is a meditation on money and the lengths people are willing or unwilling to go to get it. True there are plot elements straight out of any generic thriller, but they are minimal and never get in the way of the film’s central thematic concerns. Anyone coming to this film for the run-of-the-mill action thriller is going to be very disappointed.
To ‘s film weaves together three seemingly unrelated stories, each examining the movies’ themes from a different perspective, merging almost accidently for a moment near the end, before moving on independently again. There is a dedicated police inspector who is being cajoled by his fiancé into buying an apartment he really can’t afford, an unsuccessful securities saleswoman worried about losing her job, and an underworld gang lieutenant trying to drum up enough money to get his boss released from custody. Though all three are affected by one central event involving the killing of a loan shark and a large amount of money he has withdrawn from his bank, their stories are only peripherally related.
Although the film begins with the police inspector and his investigation of a killing, it is a killing that has little to do with the rest of the film, and almost immediately To shifts to a longer scene in which the inspector’s bubbling fiancé tries to seduce him into buying a fancy apartment by lauding its virtues. The inspector is played with stoic reluctance by Richie Jen. Myolie Wu is his exuberant fiancé. Later a thread about a younger sister that he needs to take care of is added, but it only adds to his inability to afford anything remotely like the extravagant apartment. The high price and the suggestion that prices will only go higher foreshadow the importance that the general economic situation is going to play in the lives of these characters, as well as those of the others who we have yet to meet.
Teresa (Denise Ho) works as a financial advisor and securities saleswoman for a bank. Introduced at a staff meeting, it is made very clear that she is not very good at what she does and is worried about losing her job. How far she is willing to go to protect her job is stressed in a lengthy scene in which she convinces an older woman who is unhappy with the anemic interest rates paid on her bank savings to invest her life savings in a high risk investment. There is an element of satiric black humor in the scene although it does seem to go on for longer than necessary to make its point.
The last of the stories has a gang member called Panther played quite broadly by Lau Ching Wan trying to find the money necessary to get his boss, who has been arrested during an elaborate birthday celebration, released from custody. The Panther, despite his criminal activities, is portrayed as a doggedly loyal underling, committed to doing what needs to be done to help his boss. There is some irony in the idea that the criminal may be the most honorable of all the characters in the film.
At times humorous is its satiric thrust, the film is a character study of these three people, how they handle their need for money and how they are affected by it. Some will find it a fascinating exploration of the “getting and spending” with which the poet tells us “we lay waste our hours,” others will find it slow going. To takes his time. It takes a while for the tales to mesh, and much of the time the viewer will be left to wonder what all these threads have to do with one another. Unfortunately, when he does find out, he may find the explanation something less than satisfying.
Although there is a Region 3 DVD that includes a making of feature and deleted scenes, this new version has no bonus material other than trailers for other films. It does, of course, have English subtitles.