Looking through our archives, it seems like almost everyone who’s ever written for Heroic Cinema has sat down at a keyboard to bash out a review of a Johnnie To film at one time or another. Ching Yee compared films from Milkyway Image to comfort food in her review of My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, and she’s right — To’s films have developed a distinctive style and consistently high level of quality over the years, and I always look forward to watching his characters bounce around Hong Kong, propelled so elegantly by circumstances beyond their control and their own loyalties.
That said, Life Without Principle is a bit of a different beast than usual. Eschewing the street-level heroics and political machinations of the triad films, this film plays a little more like Sparrow with the tension turned up: three sets of very different characters crisscross the narrative, linked by their need for a bit of financial success and their proximity to a man with a great deal of money.
First, we are introduced to Teresa (Denise Ho), a struggling investment clerk in a large bank. She’s failing to hit her performance targets and can see that her job’s on the line: to catch up, she’s forced to spend her nights cold-calling clients, pitching high-risk investments — even to customers she knows shouldn’t assume that sort of risk. One customer who could invest that way, loan shark Yuen (Lo Hoi Pang), dismisses managing his investments with a bank, gleefully explaining just how much better he’s doing on his own (and how profitable his own business is!) Things get even worse once the European financial crisis hits the news and unhappy customers start streaming in, demanding to know where their savings are.
Police officer Cheung (Richie Ren) is also in need of cash: his wife Connie (Myolie Wu) is on the hunt for an apartment for the two of them, and her desire to invest now (under pressure by the rising price of property and prompting from the real-estate agent) doesn’t sit easily with Cheung’s conservatism.
Finally, there’s small-time triad Panther (Lau Ching Wan). Panther is dim but dogged and trustworthy, characteristics that make him perfectly suitable for looking after the money for his bosses. When his sworn brother Wah is picked up by the police, he’s tasked with raising the money to bail him out, a job which he takes to with almost childlike enthusiasm.
All three stories are different — apart from the common theme of greed — and they’re told very differently, too. Theresa rarely stirs from behind her desk, and her tale is a tense pressure-cooker of a story, all worried looks and subtext. Heroic policeman Cheung is the straight guy, working a dangerous job on the street but almost paralysingly conservative at home. Small-time thug Panther is the opposite: he careens madly through Hong Kong, twitching nervously with every tic Lau Ching Wan can muster, pushed from one crisis to the next by his desperate associates.
To switches between all three stories and their intersecting timelines fluidly, but the differences in tone and style make things easy enough to follow. Some of the film is darkly funny, particularly Teresa’s interactions with Yuen the loan shark and virtually Lau Ching Wan’s entire subplot. As in Mad Detective, his character is essentially a ridiculous one with a great deal of self-confidence, and he sells it just as well here.
It’s Denise Ho’s intense performance as Teresa, though, that is most impressive about the picture: she manages to get across all the pain of being forced to do something immoral to keep her job, and watching her coax an elderly client into a high-risk investment that she doesn’t understand is heartbreaking.
Life Without Principle has a point to make, and perhaps it belabours it a little. It’s a great film nonetheless — not comfort food, this one, but certainly worth seeing.