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Hong Kong 2011
Directed by
Johnnie To
102 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Life Without Principle

Anyone who comes to Hong Kong director Johnnie To's latest effort expecting high octane action will be more than a little discombobulated. Although it starts off with human blood on the floor of a crummy apartment building most of the blood is of a financial kind and the main floor is that of the stockmarket.  As the film’s title suggest, To is interested in exploring the conflict between money and morality.

After its red herring opening the film settles down to follow the activities of bank employee Teresa (Denise Ho) as she desperately tries to improve her monthly sales figures. Teresa is the epicentre of a narrative which expertly weaves together the lives of a variety of people whose paths, metaphorically or literally, cross hers. These include loan shark Chung Yuen (Lo Hoi-pang), diligent cop, Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren, who played the villain in To's Breaking News,2003) who we saw in the opening scene, and his wife Connie (Wu Myolie) who wants them to buy an apartment and petty criminal, Panther (Lau Ching-wan), who spends all his time helping his gangster bosses in their money-making schemes and bailing out his loser cohorts.

These are only the main characters of what is a mordantly wry depiction of life reduced to a never-ending pursuit of money, some winning, some losing. Probably the film would resonate even more strongly with its domestic audience but even from a distance one can appreciate the distinctively Chinese obsession with money and getting rich, while the fatalistic philosophy imbuing it gives the film a blackly comedic tone,

For much of the film’s running time the film seems curiously banal as various story lines unfold. In the latter stages, however, To doubles back on the narrative and starts to connect the dots in his portrait of intersecting lives and gradually the depth of his purpose emerges. By its end it impresses for the masterful way it builds its story, dense in detail, ironic in tone (the cocktail music is particularly helpful here) combining humour and pathos with a deft hand. Don't be waylaid by its action film marketing, Life Without Principle is a first class depiction of the human comedy.




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