Film Review: Life Without Principle by Johnnie To

Yang, Philbert, Louanne and I went to see the premiere of Life Without Principle (奪命金) at TIFF yesterday and I thought the film is an interesting look into the perspective of a Hong Konger during the economic crisis. With writing credited to “the Milkyway Image Co.” (Johnnie To’s production company), which To essentially admitting at the Q&A to mean that it was him who wrote it (albeit on an on-and-off basis with many revisions over three years), the film is played out with the auteur’s signature slow, drawn out style with the lengthy sequences simmering to a boiling point so the audiences can fully dissect the characters’ internal conflicts. It also works well to provide the necessary insight for foreign audiences to comprehend the mental and emotional situation that’s taking place. As usual, To takes a common situation/theme that people are familiar with, either personally or through media influence and add to it new layers by diving into the psyche of those involved and revealing some hidden intricacies that tend to be glossed over or even wrongly glorified by his commercial contemporaries. If you’re fascinated with To’s other efforts such as Election and PTU, you will be pleased with how he handles Life Without Principles and let it play out.

That’s not to say the film is not without it’s flaws. Unlike some of his earlier works, Life Without Principle is a bit showy especially compared to The Mission and Exiled. It lacked his signature character subtlety that is high in abundance in his other successful works and any Johnnie To fan will notice the lack of the quiet weight and subtext that gives his characters extra flavour as a result of actors carrying a certain level of restraint. Also, almost every Johnnie To crime film has a quirky character that behaves out of place via some form of overacting such as Eddie Cheung’s speech patterns in Election and Simon Yam’s overly flamboyant personality in Exiled but Lau Ching Wan’s excessive eye-blinking proved extremely distracting. During the Q&A, To explained how it was used to symbolize various aspects of his character but without a certain level of fluidity in its execution, it came off as more gimmicky than usual. It’s as if To asked Lau Ching Wan to channel his mad detective via a going-nowhere low-ranking triad, which is a shame as Lau Ching Wan’s best performances are those where he plays the everyman, fleshing out familiar emotions and situations through expert underplaying. The weird character quirks may be another one of Johnnie To’s usual bag of tricks but this time, it simply didn’t work.

That being said, the film presents a strong narrative that will hold its own ground compared to what’s out there in Hong Kong. It’s solid work from To and knocking Life Without Principle for not living up to some of his other successes isn’t completely fair on my part. Considering how he is one of the few Hong Kong filmmakers left with a steady stream of quality output and a continuous tenacity to infuse the local identity that made Hong Kong cinema so distinctive and popular, audiences can only be grateful for the fact that the film is far from being a stinker. The film is clearly made by someone who has enough confidence in his local audience to continue making work that aims to be more than superficial chivalry at best and for that, it more than deems itself worthy of a viewing.