One look at the DVD case for Life Without Principle and you would get the impression that this would be your average run-of-the-mill Hong Kong action film. This couldn’t be any more misleading. I understand the companies need to make money, and the easiest way to do this is to make up some cover art with guns, fire, and a masked many with money flung in the air seems the way to go, but in the process it does this film and the audience a disservice. So please, if you are expecting an action-packed bullet-ridden spectacle I apologize, but you need to look elsewhere. But for those willing to sit back and watch a solid thriller about greed and corruption you are in for a treat.
Director Johnnie To is as much a staple to Hong Kong cinema as Martin Scorsese is to American cinema. For those unfamiliar with To’s work I would recommend checking out some of his better known titles like Election, PTU, and Vengeance to see some great modern Hong Kong cinema that action fans will have a lot of fun with. He’s a filmmaker that has a broad cinematic canvas that gives each of his films a unique style, but somehow while watching it you know you’re watching a To film.
With Life Without Principle To brings us along as the Hong Kong stock market is on the verge of collapse and the banks are doing what they can to survive even if this means taking money from the poor and desperate. From the beginning we are hit with a lot of information about the HK stock market and the banking industry as well as numerous financial plans that is a bit overwhelming, but as the movie progresses I understood that was the point. We first meet Teresa (played by Denise Ho) whose job it is to find people to invest in risky propositions that will most likely not pan out, but the bank will collect on interest rates. She knows all the people that sign up are all going to most likely lose all their money, but it’s her job to wear a smile while she dupes the unsuspecting into signing over their life’s earnings.
We also meet a loan shark who understands things are getting bad in the market so he is pulling out as much cash as he can, because he sees that cash is the only sure thing. Since the loan shark is anything but subtle about money, he becomes a target for thieves who each have their own agenda. One of these thieves is Panther (Ching Wan Lau), who is a loyal gang member who is willing to do whatever it takes for his crime boss whom the police seem to enjoy locking up any chance they get when he travels through one district to the next. What I found amusing is how To has us rooting for the gangsters and them being able to find a way to beat the banks, because in this film (and some would argue in reality) the bankers are the real criminals.
This movie won’t be for everyone, but what it has going for it is a fun fast-paced plot once you get past the first ten minutes which does feel like a crash course in business and statistics. The rest of the film is a beautifully-shot heist film where everyone is simply out to maintain their financial security even if it means bending a few morals along the way.