04 March 2012

Review: Life Without Principle / 奪命金

Hong Kong, 2011
Director: Johnnie To (杜琪峰)
Cast: Lau Ching-Wan (劉青雲), Richie Jen (任賢齊), Denise Ho (何韻詩), Myolie Wu (胡杏兒), Cheung Siu-Fai (張兆輝), Stephanie Che (車婉婉), Terence Yin (尹子維)

Johnnie To’s 2011 release, “Life Without Principle,” is about people’s greed and obsession with money. The story develops around the three key characters - Police inspector Cheung (Richie Jen), Teresa, a bank’s sales clerk (Denise Ho) and Panther, a low-rank triad member (Lau Ching-Wan) - whose lives are indirectly connected.

Cheung, devoted to his work, is pressured by his wife (Myolie Wu) who wants to buy a particular apartment urgently, before other bidders get their hands on it. Teresa, with her performance score being at the bottom of the sales team, is in distress as she may lose her job if she doesn’t talk her customers into buying a high-risk, high-return investment package. Panther, simple-minded and loyal, finds himself in situations where he has to operate various “fund-raising” activities to save his friends and colleagues.

Their respective lives go through changes with a murder of a loan shark (who is a customer of Teresa, the robbery target for Panther, and eventually the victim of a murder investigated by Cheung) and, later, a stock market crash caused by the Euro crisis. (Actually, the changes in Cheung’s life can be attributed more to other incidents described in sub plots.)

“Life Without Principle” may be satirising money-obsessed Hong Kong society, but it does not try to teach you any particular lessons. There are no definite winners or losers among the key characters, and there is no happy ending. Life is a journey, a process, and it will go on with occasional wins and losses for everyone...

Because most scenes are filmed indoors, without guns, explosions or much action, this movie does not look like a grand-scale production. I, however, was never bored as the drama for Cheung, Teresa and Panther unfolded rather calmly, with an air of suspense kept towards the ending. For example, there is an oddly long scene which depicts the bank’s warning procedures when a housewife tries to purchase a high-risk investment product. This would later create an “I-told-you-so” effect, and viewers can wait for the inevitable market crash to happen.

Johnnie To is a versatile director who has produced films in different genres. Lau Ching-Wan and Richie Jen, regulars on To’s films, delivered reliable performances once again in “Life Without Principle,” but the casting of pop singer Denise Ho and TVB actress Myolie Wu was a surprise. While I wouldn’t mind if Myolie stayed in the television, Denise Ho showed a promising capability as a screen actress, by expressing an ordinary sales woman’s repressed agony with forced smiles and subtle glances.

In minor roles, both Stephanie Che and Terence Yin displayed their matured images well, and Milkyway Image fans can smile to themselves as a lot of smaller roles are filled by familiar faces including Law Wing-Cheong (羅永昌), Chiu Ponytail Chi-Shing (趙志誠) and Cheung Wing-Cheung (張榮祥).

Though “Life Without Principle” will not be Johnnie To’s classic masterpiece, and its open ending could cause some indigestion on the viewer’s part, the movie is of a certain standard, and overall, I found it entertaining enough.

Note for Roy Cheung (張耀揚) Fans: I've located and added a photo of him attending Subway Taipa Branch's opening in June 2011. You can find it here.

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