Life Without Principle (2011)

Directed by
To takes on economics
Reviewed by Simon on 2012-06-14

Johnnie To and the Milkyway Image team take on the Global Economic Crisis, the changing times in Hong Kong and the cost of greed. There are essentially three stories, which overlap - Richie Jen is an honest cop, Lau Ching-Wan is a loyal Triad and Denise Ho is an employee in a bank. Numerous other characters' stories intersect and overlap with theirs, and the overall story is told with a non-linear time flow. The thread that ties all their stories together is the economic crisis (primarily in Europe) and the effects and consequences across the entire global economy, down to the smallest of players.

As the film's title suggests, and many of the stories and substories confirm, To seems to want to tell us that it is better to live our lives with principles than to pursue money, although Denise Ho's subplot arguably contradicts that idea. It does seem to be a general rule that the more greed a character shows the worse things turn out for them, though it is definitely not an inviolable one. I'm sure nobody expects Johnnie To to deliver anything quite so simple and straightforward though - the film does come dangerously close to positing an 'Instant Karma' effect as it is.

Stylistically the film is at the understated end of the Milkyway Image spectrum, but as confident and accomplished as you would expect with To in the director's chair. The main cast all deliver their characters well, with Lau Ching-Wan not surprisingly being the most expressive of them.

Very effective use is made of the city of Hong Kong, with the film switching between places which evoke a feel of 'classic' Hong Kong and locations which emphasise the change in the local (and global) economy of the past ten years or so, as Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule turned into an economic boom (for some). There is definitely a sense of regret, or at least ambivalence, about these changes - a definite nostalgia for the old ways.

LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE is yet another solid film from the Milkyway Creative Team, not pushing any boundaries or taking any bold leaps but quietly reaffirming To's position as probably the most reliable and professional film-maker in the local market.