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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 10.17.11] review drama crime

Year: 2011
Director: Johnnie To
Writers: Ka-kit Cheung, Nai-Hoi Yau, Tin-Shing Yip
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Marina Antunes
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Stepping away from the action films that made him a international sensation, Johnny To returns to the international stage this year with a film centered on the current economic crisis which examines the weight individuals put on money and what we are willing to stake for a stack of cash.

Life Without Principle brings together a seemingly wide group of people from different walks of life all of whom find themselves financially stuck between a rock and a hard place. There's Teresa, a bank teller-turned-investment-manager who, in trying to meet her monthly sales quota, finds herself issuing high-risk investments to low-risk investors, Cheung, a police officer whose fiancé wants to purchase an apartment far beyond the couple's means and a low-level thug by the name of Panther who finds himself embroiled in a number of get-rich-quick schemes as he helps a mob family out of trouble. All of these individuals come together around an old man whose investments have seen a rapid rise thanks to his loan shark activities lending out high interest loans that banks can't (or won't) fill.

The loan shark, an old man who spends half of his time hitting on Teresa, arrives one fateful day to make a withdrawal of $10M dollars. Near the end of the transaction he gets a phone call, advises that he'll only require $5M and is in such a hurry to leave he exists while telling Teresa he'll fill out the deposit paperwork on his next visit. Teresa locks up the remaining half of the deposit before realizing that the man has left behind his cell phone. She goes chasing after him only to find that the old man has been mugged in the parkade and is now dead. The teller now has access to $5M dollars but will her moral principles outweigh her need for cash now that she is likely to lose her job?

To's film provides an endlessly pessimistic view of people and our attachment to material items and the cash that will buy them. No one, not even the nice old lady who loses a part of her savings thanks to Teresa's recommendation for her to invest in hi-risk stocks, is outside of To's scope; she's sold on the idea as soon as she hears the rate of return on her investment. Surprisingly, the only individual that manages to stick closely to his morals is Panther. Here's a guy who spends his days working for shady characters yet he's the only one that doesn't seem particularly interested in cash for himself. Writers Ka-kit Cheung, Nai-Hoi Yau and Tin-Shing Yip make Panther, the morally bankrupt character, the only individual who isn't blinded by the money and is just interested in helping out his friends.

Half of Life Without Principle's running time is spent on setting up the various characters before the events all merge together and we see how all of the characters fit together. It's an intricate and fast paced series of events and when the loan shark ends up dead, the action kicks into high gear with everyone searching for those responsible and the missing loot. It's here that the film's focus shifts from the group at large to Panther's adventures and good thing too. His scheming for money to bail out his boss is a comedy of errors and Ching Wan Lau brilliantly portrays the low-rent gangster with unforgettable bravado.

A fast paced dramedy taking place on a particularly bad day, I found To's take on the selfishness of people a bit too harsh but he delivers the material in a non-judgemental way, simply showing the events of the day unfold. In the end, Life Without Principle is very much a tale of greed but one that is delivered with gusto and which doesn't come across as preachy yet manages to reprimand our need for consumerism.

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