Review: LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE 奪命金 (2011) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Saturday, 5 November 2011



LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE begins with Inspector Cheung (Richie Jen) working on a murder case in a rundown housing block. It doesn't take long before he gets a call from his wife Connie (Myolie Wu) to view an apartment she's desperate to buy as an investment. However, Cheung isn't quite ready to fork out a large sum of money to buy such an apartment yet. Connie is disappointed, but she isn't given up just yet. So she goes to a bank where a bank officer named Teresa (Denise Ho) is handling the case, and discovers that the service fees, as well as the interest rates on her mortgage, is amazingly beyond her financial reach. Not even the combination of her husband's civil service discount can help her cause that much. In the meantime, Teresa suffers a serious problem of her own. Apparently, she is currently at the bottom of her sales team and struggling to find anyone to invest in the bank's high-risk fund. If she doesn't do anything to make the sales, she might be losing her job in no time. Then along came a client named Yuen (Lo Hoi-Pang), a loan shark who drops by to withdraw HK$10 million to lend to triad Panther (Lau Ching-Wan) and his associate Lung (Philip Keung), who has just lost a fortune of his big client's (Terence Yin) money on the stock market. But for some reasons, Yuen ends up leaving half the withdrawal behind in Teresa's office and leaves the bank. Teresa realises he has forgotten his handphone and leaves her desk to look for her client. She ends up in the parking garage, where she is surprised to find out that Yuen has been killed by someone. The money he had taken out earlier goes missing. As she is aware of Yuen's death, she realises there's another HK$5 million he had left in her office. On the other side of the story, Panther, a loyal triad member who works for his stingy boss (Tam Ping-Man) is desperately trying to collect a large sum of money from various people to bail out Brother Wah (Cheung Siu-Fai), who is arrested for multiple counts. That is where he ends up meeting Lung, who is subsequently turning over to Panther for financial help.

REVIEW: A refreshing change of pace from the usual norm of the gangster genre, Johnnie To's long-awaited LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE is a wickedly fascinating look at money, greed and the dark side of human nature in the midst of world financial crisis. It's also among his most densely plotted movie he ever made since ELECTION (2005) and ELECTION 2 (2006) -- except the difference is, there's nary a sight of the usual gun violence or huge bloodshed you normally expected from a Johnnie To's movie. Such bold approach might alienate a lot of die-hard fans, but those who are game enough to watch this favourite Hong Kong auteur dare to try something different, they're in for a surprisingly entertaining treat.

Cheung Ka-Kit, Yau Nai-Hoi and Yip Tin-Shing's screenplay is no doubt convoluted and sometimes confusing that requires the viewer to pay close attention to its dense plot because the story is told in a non-linear fashion -- something you expect from movies like PULP FICTION (1994). It's a kind of movie that demands a lot of patience and it's certainly worth your time once everything is laid out in the movie. That is part of the beauty in LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE, as Johnnie To manages to sustain interest with his unique brand of ironic sense of humour, catchy dialogues, exciting characters and the way how the grim subject matter (financial crisis) plays out in a quirky manner without making things look heavy-handed. It's especially fascinating to see To abandons most of his stylistic trademark here and still able to execute an entertaining movie which relies heavily on dialogue and storytelling device.

Another good reason here is the cast themselves. Likewise, Lau Ching-Wan shines in his role with a scene-stealing performance who always twitches his eyes (one of the unique aspects of his character) and it's especially fun to watch him getting involved in a series of Rube Goldberg-like pinball situations (one of the best scenes in the movie) where he has to collect a large sum of money from various people he comes to know of, in order to bail out Brother Wah. (In one hilarious twist, he is frustrated to learn that Brother Wah gets arrested again by other police division shortly after he bails him out successfully -- a strikingly original scene that really had me laughing). Come awards season next year, Lau Ching-Wan is truly deserving to get recognised for such enthusiastic acting performance.

Equally impressive is Denise Ho, who gives a tour de force performance as an emotionally frustrated bank officer on the verge of losing her job due to bad sales record. Her character is no doubt difficult to play with, since she has to rely heavily on her facial expression to signify all the inner turmoil she forced to go through and amazingly enough, she manages to pull it off exceptionally well. At the same time, it's also great to see a strong female lead in a Milkyway production normally reserved for the male cast.

The rest of the supporting casts are mesmerising as well, including Lo Hoi-Pang, Cheung Siu-Fai, Tam Ping-Man and especially Philip Keung shines in an amusing performance as the financially-desperate Lung.

Still, the movie is not without its set of faulty problems. To fails to make his story involving Cheung and Connie's situation as compulsively watchable as those he made the side of Teresa's and Panther's story so successfully. In fact, I personally feel that Cheung and Connie's story is more like an unnecessary filler that drags out the momentum of the movie. Not surprisingly, it's quite disappointing to see Richie Jen and Myolie Wu's performance are reduced to thankless roles. There are other flaws, though -- like To's questionable choice the way he ends his movie with a strangely upbeat finale, especially the one involving Panther. Then there's a half-developed subplot involving Brother Wah in which his scene is strangely abandoned altogether once Panther gets himself involved with Lung.

Minor quibbles aside, LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE remains one of To's finest works to date (who actually took an incredible three years to make!) and also by far, the best Hong Kong movie of the year.

Johnnie To's latest movie may have been dense and convoluted, but LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE deserves a credit for its wickedly entertaining look at the irony within the world financial crisis.

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