Money is the root of all evil, as three people with nothing in common will discover. The only thing connecting them all is a bag containing 5 million dollars... and their desperate need for cash. This is the synopsis on the back of the DVD for Life without Principle that I hold in my hand. Although it is an exciting premise, Johnnie To’s financial narrative is far more complex and identifiable than this genre-centric description. Although Life Without Principle is set in Hong Kong it is actually an overview of the global financial crisis. Yes this film was released in early 2011, a time when this issue was slightly more pertinent, but as I rewatched it in 2013 it dawned on me that it has lost none of its relevance as the economy continues to be unpredictable and frankly an absurd concept. Without being overly preachy Johnnie To focuses on the inner workings of a particular bank pushing to increase questionable investments to unsuspecting customers. This is one side of the story and indeed of the crisis as the film explores multiple establishments and industries from legitimate banking and scrupulous trading firms to outright criminal organisations. One employee of the bank in particular who is desperate to increase her sales figures performs some dodgy sales tactics and gets tied up in an unfortunate thievery that spirals into disaster.
Considering the aforementioned other tales is a man at the opposite end of the spectrum, a super optimistic and desperately old-school gangster Panther (Ching Wan Lau who is great in most things does not disappoint here) who watches as his concepts of brotherhood and respect in the Triad disintegrate as he suffers to ensure his boss does not lose face and his fellow brothers do not stray. Both components eventually integrate as they get tied up in the illegitimate trading business that beautifully culminates into some effective commentary of the economic climate and the lengths that the crisis can force some people to go as they lose everything in the blink of an eye.
Of course this is director Johnnie To so there is some wickedly black humour to counterbalance these heavy elements and it all works to pitch-perfection.
Life without Principle establishes some interesting characters in an unstable time and manages to tell an entertaining narrative whilst cleverly commenting on the GFC and its impact in one of the financial centres of the world, one of To’s best.
Kwenton Bellette - follow Kwenton Twitter here: @Kwenton
Life without Principle is out now on DVD from Madman Entertainment