TIFF Journal: ‘Life Without Principle’

Prolific Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To typically directs 1-2 new movies every year. (Though he apparently didn’t make any in 2010, IMDb shows him making up the lost ground with three this year.) Somehow, remarkably, most of his films are very consistent in quality. To is a festival favorite here in Toronto, and has returned this year with the excellent ‘Life Without Principle’, which plays like a cross between one of his famous Triad thrillers and Oliver Stone’s ‘Wall Street’.

The film follows three intertwining storylines in Hong Kong as the characters’ lives are affected by, of all things, the financial collapse in Greece. (Didn’t that just happen? How does To crank these things out so quickly?) In one, the wife of a police officer wants to buy an expensive new condo that her husband remains indecisive about. Without his knowledge, she transfers most of their investments to high-risk international stocks in order to raise some cash, but unfortunately does so on the day before the stock market crash.

A young financial advisor at a bank is under intense pressure to sell those high-risk stocks, and feels tremendously guilty when she realizes that she has caused many of her clients to lose their life savings. One client receives a massive windfall from the situation, however – an obnoxious loan shark preying on victims of the crash.

Finally, we have Panther, a low-level Triad member who actually believes in the ideals of brotherhood and loyalty that the rest of his “brothers” consider just words. When one such brother, the Triad’s investment manager, loses a small fortune of the Triad’s money, Panther has to scramble to help him make up the loss quickly before their bosses make him pay in a different way.

Most of these characters cross paths at various points, but To isn’t obnoxious about hammering home the connections. (This isn’t ‘Crash‘ or anything like that.) Like most of To’s best films, ‘Life Without Principle’ is cleverly-plotted, slickly-directed, and has engaging characters. The twitchy Panther (played by Lau Ching Wan from To’s earlier ‘Mad Detective’) is a fascinating creation. The film is also laced with a streak of To’s signature dark humor. While the movie isn’t as action-heavy as some of To’s more famous efforts, fans of the director should enjoy this one a lot.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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