Life Without Principle, the new film from Hong Kong genre specialist Johnnie To, received its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last fall. Shortly thereafter, U.S. distribution rights were picked up by the Indomina Group, whose website, as of today, states that the film’s release date is still “TBA.” It seems likely that Principle will not receive a theatrical release in the U.S. at all but may be dumped straight to DVD at some unforeseen point in the future. Fortunately, Mega Star, the film’s Hong Kong distributor, already released a superb region-free Blu-ray last month that will almost certainly be making my list of the ten best home video releases of 2012. Not only is it an impeccable HD transfer of a film shot on 35mm, which is beginning to feel more and more like an anomaly, the movie itself is one of Johnnie To’s best and most interesting – one that eschews the gangster movie conventions for which the director is best known in favor of a crime drama/social satire that examines the current global economic crisis from a variety of interesting angles.
The film’s dazzling first act revolves around Teresa (cute Canto-pop sensation Denise Ho), a bank employee who is under relentless pressure from her superiors to sell more investments. After making futile cold calls to potential investors from work, Teresa attempts to sell a high-risk investment to an elderly female walk-in customer who has a “low-risk profile.” Teresa is required by law to audio-tape their conversation, wherein she will explain the risks involved to the customer who is, in turn, supposed to respond to every statement with “I understand completely.” This sequence, which lasts a full ten minutes and involves Teresa and the customer going through the same spiel three times until they get it right, is a remarkable set piece of absurdist comedy. Although Teresa wears an obligatory fake smile and essentially tries to upsell the old woman into gambling on her life savings, To refuses to make her the villain of the piece. Instead we are just as likely to empathize with the employee as we are with the customer because To has been careful to illustrate how all of his characters are furiously pedaling on the same capitalist treadmill.
Who then is to blame for this clusterfuck of greed and corruption? Is it Teresa’s superiors at the bank? To and his team of screenwriters show how the bank makes money off of customer interest, even while those customers lose money by making bad investments through the same bank in an unstable market. (One of the film’s best gags involves a bank customer who is also a loan shark offering Teresa a loan with a lower interest rate than what her own employers will provide.) But To also shows how Hong Kong’s economy is affected by the markets of distant European countries. Hong Kong’s denizens listen to the radio, helpless, as the latest news of the Greek debt crisis and the response by the rest of the European Union causes the local market to rise and fall. To suggests that, in the world of high finance, the principle of the “banality of evil” applies: the buck never stops because everyone rationalizes that their actions are merely a reaction to someone or something else.
In a scenario of remarkable intelligence and complexity, Teresa’s story is but one of several plot strands twining around that of the aformentioned loan shark, a man who is robbed of 5 million dollars after withdrawing it from her bank near the film’s beginning. The other principal characters in Principle are Panther (Lau Ching-Wan), a genial, small-time triad member whose lowly station is directly attributable to his adherence to outmoded codes of honor and loyalty, and Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren), a good-hearted cop whose wife is constantly pestering him to purchase an expensive new condo. Over the course of two days, the various plot strands are drawn ever closer together, which leads to a deftly intercut triple climax that will alter the destinies of each character forever.
Life Without Principle is full of the filmmaking smarts that have made Johnnie To so beloved to cinephiles in the west. The bank scenes feature elegant camera movements, especially the repeated motif of slowly pushing in on a character, which, combined with the gleaming surfaces and monochromatic red/blue color scheme of the set design, suggest a world where everything is perfectly polished and mechanized and nothing is out of place. But To then contrasts these scenes with exterior shots of the urban jungle outside, where teeming hordes of money-mad people struggle to survive. In one inspired scene, we see Panther racing through the streets (that nickname is no lie), looking to borrow money from a former Triad brother who has since turned to making money by recycling cardboard boxes. To also repeatedly punctuates the film with shots of the Hong Kong skyline, where storm clouds constantly seem to be gathering, putting viewers in the mind of the figurative economic storm from which no one is unaffected.
Finally, although he doesn’t appear in the film until after the 33-minute mark, it is Lau Ching-Wan who imbues Life Without Principle with its charming, funky, offbeat soul. Lau, working with Johnnie To for a whopping 18th time (in what is arguably the greatest director/star pairing of contemporary movies), shows off some new colors in an already diverse palate in his creation of the lovable loser Panther. Sporting Hawaiian shirts under 1970s-style blazers, Panther is a frenetic busybody, shoulders permanently hunched, rapidly blinking, always scurrying around and trying to hustle money to help out a “sworn brother.” Panther attempts to cut costs for his boss’ banquet by forcing more chairs together per table at a restaurant and only ordering “healthy” vegetarian meals (because meat is more expensive), which humorously underlines the film’s central, egalitarian notion that everyone, even movie gangsters, are feeling the crunch in these tough economic times.
If Johnnie To is a “crime film specialist” then Life Without Principle is in some ways a typical Johnnie To movie. It’s certainly a film about crime, just probably not in the way that a lot of his fans might expect. And while nothing could be more Johnnie To than that (the man did after all once make a movie titled Expect the Unexpected), perhaps what surprises and impresses the most about this film is the shocking sophistication of its sociological insights. For sheer prescience, the only movie I’ve seen in recent years that can even compare is Godard’s Film Socialisme, another egalitarian film that extends sympathy to all of its characters. “Expect the unexpected” might as well be the motto for To’s entire career, for no other director of the past quarter century has done so much to reinvigorate genre filmmaking by so consistently pushing genre conventions in as many surprising, intelligent and highly personal directions.
The image quality of Mega Star’s Life Without Principle Blu-ray is flawless. The colors are nicely saturated and “pop” in the way that only 35mm color can. Even the occasional white speckles have a quaint charm, reminding us that what we are looking at is the transfer of a film that once ran vertically through a motion picture camera rather than a mere digital-to-digital transfer of pulsating electronic pixels. The soundtrack is likewise robust with a nice separation between the Cantonese dialogue track, the punchy sound effects and a catchy, vocal-heavy musical score (although I regrettably couldn’t take full advantage of the 7.1 sound mix with my 5.1 setup). In conclusion, I was fairly blown away by this Blu-ray, which instantly placed Life Without Principle as one of my top five favorite Johnnie To films (along with The Mission, PTU, Mad Detective and Election). I also feel it would serve as a perfect introduction to his oeuvre for anyone who has heard or read about him but not yet seen his films.
Mega Star’s Blu-ray of Life Without Principle can be purchased from the fine folks at yesasia.com here:
Life Without Principle Rating: 9.9