Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 26, 2012 7:44 am 
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Greed everywhere, solemnity nowhere

Life Without Principle shows the prolific Hong Kong pop director Johnnie To at less than his best as he gets carried away with pursuing a theme of today's near universal venality. There's a slapdash quality, and the focus on banks and balance sheets will disappoint fans of To's high-speed violence, nearly totally lacking here. There's hilarity, though, and plot-lines galore juggled with undeniable skill in the crude depiction of greed in not only money lenders, banks, and crime bosses, but minor financial employees -- even an old lady, willing to risk her life savings to make a quicker buck. Filmgoers who would like to see more serious and elegant treatment of the going south of global finance will do better to watch J.C. Chandor's Margin Call or Charles Furguson's documentary Inside Job.

The over-plotting is in itself hilarious, and To and his team are good enough to keep the main threads vibrating and clear. I won't try to outline them, but suffice it to say there's a cop with a dying dad whose wife wants to buy an apartment; a gang fixer who gets mixed up with a crooked investor; a moneylender who leaves a big sum in the office of a young female bank employee. Without Principle tracks three sets of characters over a three-day period depicting them in separate chronologically overlapping blocks, Pulp Fiction style, with the Greek debt crisis causing global stock market collapses on the third day, leaving in this version only the very lucky ahead. The bank employee is Teresa (Denise Ho), who lets the old lady (So Hang-shuen) dump her savings into the high-risk fund and finds the cash of the crooked loan shark (Lo Hoi-pang) left in her care, unregistered (and then he gets offed in the parking garage). There is also the cop, Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren), who has a bomb scare and a killing to deal with besides the flat purchase and his father's impending demise from esophageal cancer, but seems a perfunctory anchor to the story compared to the gangland toady, Panther (a very energetic and appealing Lau Ching-wan), and his cohort Lung (Philip Keung), who loses a fortune of his boss's money on the futures black market.

In the delightfully buffoonish finale (or one of them) Lung, with a long needle in his chest, drives Panther (yes, the stabbed man is the one at the wheel) to reinvest for him in a bet on the downturn, but Panther is a newcomer to the stock market and in his befuddlement bets instead on it going up -- with surprising results. Inspector Cheung and his wife get a surprising windfall. The old lady -- well, she was just foolish, wasn't she?

This amusing film takes some of the key issues of our time and grinds them up into a complicated farce-cum-actioner. It's something of a paradox that what should be a stunning rebuke of current morals and an engrossing story is more just a hundred minutes of fairly mindless fun. Though the movie is slapdash, it also has many signs that its maker is an old pro -- if one with too much of a bee in his bonnet and past his prime. This is one more sign that the glory day of Hong Kong actioners are over. The way the intricate plot is kept propulsive and clear arouses admiration, but (using the Pulp Fiction comparison as a standard of true originality) it's also too clichéd and generic in details to take seriously as economic commentary. And it's not gloomy, gangsterish, or violent enough to be a true crime thriller.

Life Without Principle, Chinese title 夺命金, "Deadly Gold," debuted at Venice in 2011 (see the Variety coverage by Leslie Felperin for more detail) and was also shown at Toronto, San Sebastian, and Pusan. It was screened for this review at the San Francisco International Film Festival (April 25, 2012). To's 2009 Vengeance, improbably but engagingly starring Johnny Halliday, was a part of SFIFF 2010. I reviewed To's Triad Election as part of the 2006 New York Film Festival. Triad Election's elegant moodiness and scary violence belong to a different, and to the genre fan, better world.

Also shown at the SFIFF Sun, Apr 29, 2012 at 9:15 pm at the Kabuki Cinemas fest headquarters.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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