Life Without Principle (Dyut meng gam)

Hong Kong (2011) Dir. Johnnie To

Modern day Hong Kong and the lives of three very different people are about to change forever and all for the same reason – money. Bank officer Teresa (Denise Ho) is the lowest performing member at her bank and needs desperately to turn her fortunes around or she faces the sack. So she decides to persuade an elderly woman to take out a high risk investment with the promise of a very high return. Meanwhile busy police detective Cheung (Richie Jen) is on the trail of an elderly murderer while his wife Connie (Myolie Wu) is pestering him to buy an expensive high-rise flat forcing her to consider taking a huge loan out behind his back. Finally, inept petty crook Panther (Lau Ching-Wan) wants to break away from the Triad underworld and teams up with an old friend Lung (Keung Ho-Man) to broker stocks using Triad money on the quiet in order to raise some money to help pay the bail for a fellow Triad. Then the stock markets crash….

Johnnie To has made his name over the past fifteen years for his thrilling, hard hitting, unflinching and stylishly made police / Triad dramas such as Election, PTU, Breaking News, Sparrow and the mighty Exiled but here he steps away from his usual territory to explores the world around us as it effects the ordinary people and not as bystanders in the wake of Triad activities. With the world currently suffering a financial crisis To has decided to analyse the old adage “money makes the world goes round” and how it also exposes the base trait of greed in human beings from the weak to the powerful and those in between. It is a savage film but it sticks its claws in subtly and with a wry bent as opposed to bludgeoning the audience with heavy handed didactic rhetoric.

The narrative seems a little obscure at first, its non-linear approach giving the impression one is watching an omnibus film, until things slowly begin to fall into place. The first part of the film focuses on Teresa and her deliberate bamboozling of sweet but clueless customer Cheng Siu-kun (So Hang-shuen) to ensure she puts her savings in a risky investment programme. On the other hand, flush loan shark Chung Yun (Lo Hoi-pang), who has a thing for Teresa, has invested a huge sum with her and seems to have a whiff of something going down with the stock markets. He withdraws $10 million for a deal but then decides he only needs half so he asks Teresa to put the other $5 million back. However Chung is soon found dead in the bank’s car park and the money missing.

We then miraculously jump back in time to see Chung making his way to the party of Triad boss Lee Kwan (Tam Ping-man) at which Ng Yiu-Wah (Siu-Fai Cheung) is arrested. As a result of his unwavering loyalty Panther is tasked with raising the bail money to keep Yiu-Wah out of jail but finds the old fashioned Triad ways of bullying people no longer work. After meeting ex-Triad pal Sam (Felix Wong Yat-Wah) who earns his living from recycling cardboard than from violence, Panther takes up Lung’s offer to try online trading instead. But it seems some Triad ideals stick as the money they hack the bank account of a very unpleasant Traid boss Sung (Terence Yin) to fund their dealings.

The thread with Connie and the loan for the flat and policeman hubby Cheung is fairly light weight and almost of little consequence in compared to the other arcs. Aside from Cheung arresting Wah, investigating Chung’s death and Teresa being Connie’s banker, their roles are matter of convenience to assist in the crossover of the three yarns, as well as showing the bottom end of how the need for money corrupts us all.

To and his co-writers Cheung Ka Kit, Yau Nai Hoi and Yip Tin Shing reportedly spent a good few years researching the financial world and it shows in the detail of Teresa’s spiel when explaining the BRIC programme to Cheng Siu-kun and the comings and goings of Lung and his shady schemes. To also manages to capture the fraught tension and pressure members of the financial world are under when things go pear shaped, conveying this with some neat visual representations. Teresa’s office is fairly small to begin with but as the pressure begins to mount, it seems to shrink as the film progresses. Alter on when Lung and Panther are caught out by Sung, the falling numbers of his stock are displayed on huge screens on the wall, looming behind them as damning evidence of their wrong doing.

Despite the lack of full out action and violence which features in many of To’s films, the direction possesses the same verve and keen sense of tension and pacing while To’s trademark black humour is firmly in place to remind the viewer that while the threat of financial ruin is an ever present threat, some people reap what they sow as a result of their greed. The absence of To regulars Simon Yam and Lam Suet is palpable but the always reliable Lau Ching-Wan as the twitchy, earnest Panther more than makes up for this. Sadly, Richie Jen, another To stalwart, isn’t given much to do in a role than anyone could have filled to be honest.

The last couple of films from Johnnie To have received mixed reactions but Life Without Principle should reverse that trend. It may not rank among his classics but it shows that it is possible to step out of one’s comfort zone with the right script and right idea while retaining one’s identity. A clever, satirical, often biting but engaging watch on a modern and topical subject which needs attention.