Director Johnnie To has a playfulness found in much Hong Kong cinema. He has found a different way to unfold a story, making clear how money and greed can inform everything, but with plenty of room for humor and for good fortune.
Life Without Principle. At Arts Emerson, March 16, 17, and 18.
By Tim Jackson
Have we no culture, no refinement,—but skill only to live coarsely and serve the Devil?—to acquire a little worldly wealth, or fame, or liberty, and make a false show with it, as if we were all husk and shell, with no tender and living kernel to us?
Life Without Principle—Henry David Thoreau
This quote from Thoreau ironically applies to the conscience of each of the three characters at the center of Johnnie To’s new film, Life Without Principle, whose title is shared with Thoreau. Of course, the film’s title is a pun on money and morality, but beneath the desperate groveling for cash in this film lies something deeper that might have come from the Walden philosopher himself—a quest for love, freedom, and respect. How secure are our principles when survival and security are on the line, when fast profit stock trading, gambling, loan sharking, criminal and white-collar corruption, and the uncertainties of a global economy affect the chance for a secure future?
The Hong Kong director’s film, shot in Cantonese and set in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong, weaves together three stories set amidst the global economic downturn of 2009. Interest rates are soaring, and the markets are crashing. At the center is Teresa (Denise Ho), a loan officer pressured at work to secure more loans and investments knowing full well her customers may not be able to repay them or that the investments could go bust. Through her we set the stage for the complexities of finance and money that drive the story.
The focus shifts to Panther (Ching-wan Lau), an eager-to-please runner for a group of low-level gangsters. Panther is hysterically twitchy and simple-minded but wholly honorable, a flunky with a knack for having everybody get along. He is constantly tripping over new obstacles in order to secure cash for his boss and retain his own integrity.
In and out of these stories is a third thread, Inspector Cheung and his fianceé (Richie Jen and Myolie Wu). She is sneaking off to try to secure a loan for a condo she desperately wants for their family while Cheung investigates the various crimes underfoot. All these people will find themselves impacted by the brutal and mysterious murder of a loan shark (a deliciously slimy Lo Hoi-Pang) following his hasty withdrawal of 10 million Hong Kong dollars. He leaves much of it behind for later deposit. Teresa handles the transaction.
Woven into this maze of plots are a multitude of personalities—loan clients, rag vendors, restaurant owners, gangsters, businessmen, and illegal stock traders—who make up the high and low of this endless buzzing city. The interconnection of individuals, institutions, criminal underground, and police is To’s wry statement on the interconnections of the global economy.
Director To sets his scenes deliberately, though not in the usual 20 minutes of exposition expected in most Hollywood films. Life Without Principle seems to ramble as the plot unfolds and characters are introduced. The complications and ironies play out in cacophonous city spaces and noisy, cramped rooms. An array of colorful figures fret and fumble on crowded, unfamiliar streets swarming with activity. By the ironic conclusion, the film’s central characters may or may not get what they need, and that may or may not be about money.
Johnny To is a prolific producer and director of Hong Kong Cinema with dozens of films to his credit, often in the crime genre. There are similar films with multiple characters and stories—Crash and Amores Perros come to mind—but To has a playfulness found in much Hong Kong cinema. He has found a different way to unfold a story, making clear how money and greed can inform everything, but with plenty of room for humor and for good fortune.