Saturday, March 17, 2012

Life Without Principle (Dyut Meng Gam)

Just a reminder, folks - Life Without Principle only plays at the Paramount through Sunday afternoon, so if you want to see the new Johnnie To in 35mm, do it now. It's odd that Indomina doesn't seem to have done much to get the word out - I can't even find any listings of a release date on their own site - and I worry that this pretty-good movie by a major director will get buried the way so many do, especially since ArtsEmerson, though they have a pretty nice film program, isn't exactly known for contemporary, mainstream-foreign runs.

I liked it, although upon reflection, I think the "why" requires talking about the end, which I'll get to under the eFilmCritic review.

Dyut Meng Gam (Life Without Principle)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2012 in the Paramount Theater Bright Family Screening Room (first-run, 35mm)

It perhaps doesn't mean too much that while films from China have been almost relentless in showcasing prosperity over the last few years, the movies coming out of Hong Kong have cast a steady eye on the economic downturn, with even the genre movies having intelligent commentary on it, rather than just saying that broke people do desperate things. Johnnie To's latest, Life Without Principle, is often scattered as a thriller, but has moments where he and his Milkyway team tap into the confusion and desperation of the times as well as anybody.

It's a tough market out there; banker Teresa (Denise Ho) is lagging everybody else in her office in sales of their new fund, getting nowhere with her cold calls or her best customer, loan shark Chung Yuen (Lo Hoi-pang). Across town, Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren) and his wife Connie (Wu Myolie) are considering investing in an apartment, but while Cheung is decisive on the job, he keeps putting off decisions in his private life. When a Triad member is arrested at a banquet in honor of the Boss's birthday, it's up to the man's sworn brother Panther (Lau Ching-wan) to raise the money for Brother Wah's bail, but times are tough all over, leading him to seek the help of his friend Lung (Philip Keung), who is now more a stock trader than gangster.

Teresa, Cheung, and Panther are the main three characters, but while the screenplay ties their three strands together in a nifty little knot, it only has the trio themselves briefly pass, with almost all of their interactions indirect. Their stories are at times so thin as to be non-existent: While Panther's stubborn loyalty leads him from one messy situation to another, Cheung faces a set of disconnected situations and Teresa is passively pressured by the ethics of her situation. Long stretches are spent on each story, occasionally doubling back as they intersect, and it does give the feeling that the movie could be tightened up a little. The central thrust seems to be prudence in the face of confusion, although it's not a hard push.

Full review at EFC.

WARNING! From here on out, the end of the movie will be discussed!

A night's sleep has given me the chance to ruminate on the movie a bit more, and be much more impressed by the way To uses the final few "hey, look, these disconnected characters are walking right past each other" shots. Sure, it's a clever tie-in device used by most movies that have overlapping storylines, but it makes some interesting connections.

Most importantly: Teresa and Panther are, ultimately, the same. Their final scenes have them walking past each other enjoying a treat (Teresa's ice cream and Panther's cigar reflect their personalities, but the point is the same) after having made off with five million of the loan shark's money that they can't really be said to have earned. Sure, they're both likable, and that's a tribute to the actors, but when you get right down to it, Johnnie To spent a lot of time showing Teresa basically swindling an old lady out of her life savings because she was worried about making her quota, and Panther's honor goes hand-in-hand with intimidation. They're crooks cloaked in various types of respectability, and while they've got their own problems, they don't deserve their money. Teresa shows no signs that she's going to use her windfall to help those who lost everything by trusting her.

Those customers aren't completely innocent, of course - To builds our sympathy for Teresa in part by presenting her customers as petty, greedy folks; even Kun is willing to risk everything for a chance at monetary gain. In a role full of tentative statements and confused looks, "I want more money" is the clearest thing that comes out of her mouth.

And Cheung? He is last seen with Panther walking right past him. He and his wife are going to lose a great deal of money at the worst possible time (his dying father has saddled him with a child that will otherwise go to an orphanage) because of how people like Teresa and Panther have undermined the system, and yet this honest cop has spent the movie chasing a feeble old man. Teresa and Panther - like their bosses - will never be prosecuted for what they've done, and the working man will suffer for it.

That's a clever, nasty sting on the movie's part, and it's delivered so subtly that one might not notice it at first. Life Without Principle isn't one of To's greatest movies, but it's better than it may at first appear.

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