Sunday, March 11, 2012
Life Without Principle
Life Without Principle, Johnnie To's latest of his more personal works, took three long years to get from page to screen. This method of filming is not unusual for To, fitting in shooting as and when the schedules of cast and crew allow, often resulting in a fluid and changing storyline. This approach can result in problems, so it's to To and his team of writers credit that even with it's fractured and non linear narrative, all of Life Without Principle's plot elements are kept tight and easy to follow.
Three interlocking stories revolve around a wily loan shark's (Lo Hoi Pang) bank withdrawal of 10 Million HK$ during the disastrous Greek financial meltdown in 2008. Characters weave in and around each other as the ripples of the crisis shatter the fragile monetary dreams of thousands of Hong Kongers. Following low level Triad Panther (Lau Ching Wan), a fiercely loyal man, completely out of time with not only his fellow Triads but also the world around him. A clerk at the bank, Teresa (Denise Ho), who is struggling to reach her sales quota and is in danger of losing her job as a result, and a cop Inspector Cheung (Richie Jen), a workaholic with plenty on his mind, a dying father and a wife (Myolie Wu) who is pressing him, desperate to buy a flat they can't afford. Twists of fate and circumstance combining to potentially change the lives of these seemingly unconnected people.
Much has been made of the film's lack of action and violence compared to To's other films and as a result has been heralded as a departure in the director's filmography. While it's true that none of the gunplay To is famous for is present and the plotting in both content and execution is significantly different to any of his other films, I would describe it as a departure in disguise. Aside from much of the film being set in a gangland milieu, Life Without Principle concerns itself with the same kind of fate, coincidence and irony that the best of his movies do and pulses with the same kind of black humour, making it easily recognisable as a Johnnie To film.
Filled with new faces to the Milkyway Image universe alongside many of the To regulars, these new faces add to the feeling of opening up and expanding the film's scope to embrace all the facets of Hong Kong's identity, rather than the insular world To's characters usually inhabit. The result is the movie feels like it has a chance to breathe and actually say something more than is usual for a To film. If it's commentary is somewhat pessimistic, given the culture of money madness that exists in Hong Kong, it's hard to argue against it and it is truly a film for and about Hong Kong people. For this viewer at least, it's less about what is being said and more about how it's being said. Dense with minutiae, the background is often as interesting as the foreground and the immaculate photography makes it a pleasure to study.
Life Without Principle is filled with superb performances, from some of the smallest of parts through to Lau Ching Wan's commanding presence. The wealth of razor sharp characterisations for even what amount to little more than walk on roles adds a real earthy richness to the film, the importance of which cannot not be underestimated. Without mentioning everyone, Lo Hoi Pang is great fun, as are Cheung Siu Fai, Felix Chong and Keung Ho Man. Denise Ho is good and convinces in her dilemmas but the stand out is Lau Ching Wan. Complete with a believable eye tick, Lau plays a brutish criminal with childlike enthusiasm, his belief in the loyalty of the sworn brothers is highly amusing and almost touching in both it's intensity and outdatedness.
The film does have a few issues, although they feel like nitpicking really. Most notable is the relative weakness of Richie Jen's Cheung story arc. He and his wife's story is given the least amount of screen time and while it works and makes sense within the confines of the film, it certainly could have been further developed to give Jen, who has developed into a very good actor, the chance to shine a little more. In addition, purely based on my own expectations as much as anything, I thought the three stories could have maybe converged a little more but again, the resolution works and makes sense, so it feels harsh to criticise it for that.
So, a new type of Johnnie To film but not really, it will be interesting to see where To goes from here (Mainland rom-coms aside) with his next film. While Life Without Principle is not top tier Johnnie To it is comfortably the best of 2011's Hong Kong films I've seen so far, it has wit and quality in spades and a standout performance from Lau Ching Wan more than worthy of winning the best actor award at the forthcoming Hong Kong Film Awards.