HK Movie Review: Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle (U.S. release on May 29)

Life Without Principle is a very different movie by Johnnie To. Namely, there are long stretches that showcase nothing but dialogue. Bankers, thugs, and cops talking about money. This is in stark contrast to the lengthy, wordless, and stylized tracking shots that the Hong Kong director is known for. Yes, there is the double-crossing, deception, and stealing that one might expect from the world’s best crime filmmaker, but it’s all done according to the rules of finance—and not the underworld.

At times, the wordy script does border on being forced. Comparing the similarly predatory nature of bankers, loan sharks, and gangsters is a morality play. But while it’s melodramatic to see a senior citizen victimized by a banker who is struggling to meet her goals, it’s hardly untrue. And the mostly bad news regarding the world economy that comes out of radios, TV sets, and other news feeds during the course of action, serving as a Greek Chorus of sorts, is actually the opposite of ironic.

Naturally, it’s the character that says the least who comes across the most powerfully. Longtime Johnnie To collaborator Lau Ching Wan masterfully plays the low-level gangster who suffers under the same economic conditions as the desperate banker (Denise Ho) or the police officer (Richie Jen) who is trying to afford a new home. Of them, Lau’s role is the most clueless, helpless, and likable. His loyalty to a machine that doesn’t care one bit about him is funny, sad, and allegorical at once.

While To is elevating his subject matter above the typical limits of the crime genre, his storytelling is as on-point and elegant as ever. He weaves the protagonists’ stories skillfully, surprisingly, and with the blackest of humor. It turns out the guns and machetes that the triads use (and are conspicuously absent from this movie) are a mere footnote to the greater violence propelled by the system itself. Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo has said onstage that his latest, and perhaps most pop, solo effort was inspired largely by the Occupy Movement; Life Without Principle just might be To’s populist equivalent.

On Tuesday, May 29, Life Without Principle is being released on DVD, Digital, and Video on Demand in the U.S. in Cantonese with English subtitles via Indomina Releasing. See it through a legit manner and support the rad filmmaking of Johnnie To.