Johnnie To's Life Without Principle: a comic thriller on the investment banking industry



Cantopop star Denise Ho (right) plays the naive younger banker Teresa.
  • Cantopop star Denise Ho (right) plays the naive younger banker Teresa.
In a splendid coincidence, Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running and Johnnie To's Life Without Principle are playing back-to-back at the Gene Siskel Film Center tonight (if you're busy, they're screening again, Running on Tuesday at 6 PM with Fred Camper providing an introduction, and Principle tomorrow at 3 PM). I've compared Minnelli and To before; and while they're associated with different genres (Minnelli with musicals and melodramas, To with gangster movies and romantic comedies), their similarities are more instructive than their differences. Both convey a passionate love of style: even in these director's lesser work, one can count on brilliant color schemes, highly detailed sets, and balletic movements from the camera and actors alike. Both entwine visual and narrative elements with a sense of fluidity that recalls music as much as it does movies. And both have succeeded in commercial cinema on personal, artistic terms.

They even can be said to operate in the same cinematic model. One of the most fascinating things about To's output is how it revives the celebrated studio system of classic Hollywood. In 1996, To cofounded Milkyway Image with fellow writer-director Wai Ka-Fai, which, like the great Hollywood studios at their height, employs a regular stable of technicians, actors, and writers (some of their screenplays are simply credited to "Milkyway Creative Team"). This industrial model—as opposed to the corporate model that shapes so much popular filmmaking today—ensures a consistent vision across a variety of films and has allowed a visual cinematic language to develop from one film to the next. It's what's enabled To to become, arguably, Hong Kong's best working filmmaker: fifteen years and dozens of titles after Milkyway's founding, his output (as both a director and a producer) communicates an authority, gracefulness, and reassuring familiarity that's generally ebbed away from Hollywood films since the 1960s.

To in 2009
  • To in 2009
To has often said his goal for Milkyway was to produce the best Hong Kong films—and by this, he means movies that appeal most satisfyingly to the taste and experience of Hong Kong moviegoers. To isn't above making silly romantic comedies or schmaltzy ghost stories; in fact, he's probably made as many of these as he has so-called serious works. But these lesser films are important too. They've kept Milkyway commercially viable through rough economic periods, and they've kept To sharp as a storyteller. In striving to connect with a mass audience in at least one movie per year, To has come to know the mechanics of movie narrative like the back of his hand. At this point, he's capable of setting up conflicts and introducing characters through a minimum of detail, the better to make room for more inventive complications. And he can establish suspense no less reflexively. I have to admit that the first time I saw Life Without Principle, I'd forgotten what was in Teresa's office cabinet by the time To started framing it ominously in the movie's third act; but the object had acquired so much emotional weight within To's network of visual cues that I was breathless every time I saw it.

This is a common phenomenon in To's work. Writing about Exiled for the Reader in 2007, Fred Camper noted, "To constantly moves his camera even when his subjects are still, creating a space that's much larger than the one surrounding an individual: one camera movement connects to the next and the next, and to the occasional static shot for contrast, creating a matrix or labyrinth." Rarely has this aesthetic felt more purposeful than in Principle. The movie is about the investment banking industry, and it weaves together three separate narrative lines. (As in some of William Faulkner's novels, the stories crisscross in time as well as space.) It's a brilliant structure for conveying the interconnectedness of the global economy, whose logic eludes most people.

To draws on everything he knows about popular cinema to make speculation accessible to a large audience. The movie's first lengthy passage concerns a young banker named Teresa who's pressured by superiors to sell vulnerable investors on high-risk portfolios. She's played by the pop singer Denise Ho, who makes the character as winning as any romantic comedy heroine. When To drags out her coercion of a naive old woman, showing in awful detail how a bank can take advantage of customers while appearing completely above-board, one feels terrible for both women, each acting out of desperation. To moves the camera inventively through Teresa's small office, making their transaction feel like a violent standoff.

After Teresa's quietly heartbreaking story, To switches gears in the movie's second act. In this chapter, we meet Panther (played by Lau Ching Wan in an exuberant comic performance), a low-rent gangster who gets drawn into speculation by a former colleague. This section plays as a comic variation of To's celebrated triad pictures: Panther is loyal but powerless—a pathetic clown. When we first meet him, he's having trouble arranging a birthday party for his boss, who expects a lavish celebration even though the clan no longer has any money. It's clear that this gang doesn't have much time left; the cops are busting their members left and right, forcing them to spend their last dollars on bail. Panther's attracted to speculation because it promises easy money—and better yet, this form of gambling is still legal. The irony here is that market speculation is profitable while lacking any sort of moral code; while Panther's triad, grounded in principle, is going bust.

Teresa and Panther return in the third act, which climaxes during the Greek financial crisis and finds every character's financial future uncertain. To goes back in time here to follow a police investigator (Richie Jen) who has interacted with both main characters, and his stoic persona belatedly provides the movie with a moral center. Like Panther's doddering boss, he represents an ethical code incompatible with the rootless new economy, in which loyalty and tradition count for very little. As the movie presents it, market speculation is a giant craps table where one bad bet can throw a whole society into chaos. To makes the most of this gambling analogy, building tremendous suspense around the characters' financial decisions, which become literally matters of life and death in the final scenes.

To isn't out to make a political statement: the movie is not a fictionalized Inside Job. His concerns here, like his artistry, tend towards abstraction. How does one define himself morally when business has become essentially amoral? Responding to the arbitrary nature of market speculation—which can make a person rich one minute and bankrupt the next—To conjures a world where life is in constant free-fall. It's just as exhilarating a movie environment as any Milkyway Image has yet imagined; what makes it extraordinary is how illuminates our own.

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