Life Without Principle (2011)

Director:  Johnnie To
Cast:  Terence YinChing Wan Lau, Richie Ren 
Plot:  On a fateful day, three ordinary people suddenly find their destinies entwined when a loan shark gets assaulted after having withdrawn $10 million from the bank.

Genre:  Crime / Thriller
Awards:  Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice).
Runtime:  107min
Rating:  PG for some violence.

Life Without Principle sees Johnnie To back to making crime films after taking a breather co-directing the relatively lackluster romance-drama Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011). Nominated for his third Golden Lion at Venice, To fashions a film that is his own yet it does not feel as accomplished as some of his best work in the last decade such as Election (2005) and Exiled (2006). 

I believe this is the result of an elongated first act that is uninspiring at best, with the second act starting about nearly halfway into the film, and really, that’s when the film actually begins to get more interesting.

The plot is constructed in a way that would leave some viewers confounded at first, but as they start to make sense of the entire narrative structure, the film becomes somewhat reassuring in the sense that one knows how the film will generally play out despite moments of unpredictability. 

Like films such as Traffic (2000) and Amores Perros (2000), To’s film deals with characters whose lives are unexpectedly intertwined with each other. And the thing that links everyone up is…the natural human desire to make big money. The film’s ambiguous title then echoes themes of greed (as symbolically depicted by money) and moral values (as symbolically depicted by greed).

The semantic malleability of “value”, which is the overarching, albeit abstract concept To is attempting to explore, allows it to take on multiple meanings throughout the film, manifesting itself in areas such as the value of love, family and brotherhood. Value also takes on a moralistic angle, and quite extensively in this film, it takes on its most literal meaning: the value of money. 

As I mentioned earlier, Life Without Principle begins in the most boring manner conceivable – scene after scene of dullish drama involving a banker dealing with her customers. While it is insightful to see how the finance industry works at the micro-level, it appears to do very little in advancing the film’s plot.

But when it gets exciting midway as the stakes are raised, To’s skill as a director comes to the fore. He cuts among the different narrative threads skillfully, elevating the suspense at times, while at the same time allowing his characters to function on their own in their own cinematic space. 

This is most noticeable in the intercutting of scenes of a person who has been stabbed and waiting in a car praying that the value of the stocks would fall, while another goes to help him invest his money but mistakenly investing it the wrong way, thus praying that the value of the stocks would rise. It is quite a despairing but oddly humorous scene.

Life Without Principle would have been a far effective film if the first act has been revised to create a more engaging setup. But if you are able to make it pass the first 45 minutes without dozing off, then you will be pleasantly surprised at what the second half of the film would offer. To’s film is not a bad one, though it is a flawed one. It’s literally half-decent, but I expect more from one of Hong Kong’s most celebrated film auteurs.

GRADE: B- (7/10 or 3 stars)

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