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May 24, 2012

Life Without Principle

life without principles 1.jpg

Dyut meng gam
Johnny To - 2011
Indomina Releasing Region 1 DVD

Johnny To has been stretching artistically lately. Life Without Principle goes against what might be expected not only in subject matter, but in casting. No Simon Yam or Lam Suet here. And even though one of the main characters is a cop, this is not an action film by any means. Stripped away are the jauntiness or moments of sheer visual panache. For the most part, this is To at his most serious.

What humor is to be found is in the English language title, a dual edged pun on money and morality, taken from an essay by Henry David Thoreau. It takes a while to catch on to what To has done with the narrative, intertwining stories on his three main characters who only in the most peripheral manner cross paths. The effect might be described as watching a filmmaker known for his Peckinpah inspired reveries, transform himself, at least for this film, into a subtler Robert Altman.

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For a film that is about a year old, Life Without Principle is still also remarkable topical, even without a plot twist that hangs on the financial crisis in Greece. The film revolves around a cop, whose wife wants to purchase a very expensive condo in what is one of the world's most expensive cities. There is also the investment banker with a career on the line, doing what she can to line up clients with life savings tied to the stock market. A triad flunky is deep in debt to a crime boss. Connecting the three is a loan shark with a satchel full of money.

While the comparison to Robert Altman extends to the narrative structure, Life Without Principle also makes me think of Robert Bresson, specifically the film L'Argent. Bresson's film, in some ways his atypical with some of the kind of action one might see in a To film, is about the catastrophic chain of events following the passing of a counterfeit bill. To's film also revolves on a satchel full of cash, as well as more abstract notions of money. There is also the comparison of titles, with Bresson's literally about money, while To's hints at multiple meanings. But more than any To film I have seen, most of the drama is internal, within the main characters deliberating on their own dilemmas. That interiority is referenced by the majority of the film taking place indoors, in offices, restaurants, and parking spaces. In the one major scene that takes place outside, the triad member and his wounded friend are driving through Hong Kong to a hospital, only to find themselves inadvertently trapped by various road blocks created by the police closing on a crime scene.

The other principles involved here are understood to be fluid and deliberately open ended. Some critics have argued as to who the real thieves are depicted in the story, but I think To has made a work that allows for degrees of ambiguity. Only the cop is not motivated by making a quick buck, and his financial rewards are the most modest. Whether anyone else is truly a criminal can be argued. What is certain in Life Without Principle is that the biggest robber is the bank.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 24, 2012 08:37 AM