Story: Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren) and his wife Connie (Myolie Wu) want to buy an apartment. For this reason Connie goes to the
bank and wants to take up a loan. Bank clerk Teresa (Denise Ho) has to tell her, though, that it is impossible for her to afford the apartment
because of the financial situation in Hong Kong. The Greek debt crisis has brought enormous loss to the Hong Kong stock exchange
market. Triad member Panther (Lau Ching Wan) feels the impact of this crisis as well. Up until now he was always loyally standing at his
boss' side and got his buddies out of jail. For latter he wants to borrow some money from his old friend Lung (Keung Ho Man). Lung then introduces
Panther to speculation in shares. However, Lung finds himself on the losing end because of the sudden financial crisis. In order to get some of
his money back he decides to rob a loan shark (Lo Hoi Pang) with Panther's help. Yet, something goes wrong, the loan shark dies and bank clerk
Teresa still has half of the money from his recent withdrawal. No one knows that she has the money and since she had the worst quota in her team that
quarter and must expect to be fired soon, she has to seriously think about simply keeping the money...
Review: This is by far the most socio-critical film of Johnnie To so far. A thriller with a message which is not really aiming at the
fan base that couldn't get enough of "The Mission" or "Exiled" but instead goes into a new direction. There may still be a bit of occasional triads,
brotherhood and betrayal but all in all the movie is about everyday life in Hong Kong. And this life, as we know since "Overheard" at the latest, revolves
around stock trading which even grandmother with her scanty pension participates in. Everything revolves around money, winning or losing, the
ultimate fight for survival in a world in which everyone loves himself rather than his neighbour. In "Life Without Principle" director To draws
a dark and amusing picture of a money-centered society and takes three characters from different social background and through them sketches
modern Hong Kong with the ironic eye so typical for him.
The movie's narration is very varied since we get an insight into the lives of three different individuals which are connected through the big subject money and a mysterious murder. There are also some scenes that are depicted from different perspectives throughout the movie and which therefore stand as slight repetitions, but what's really fascinating is that the stories of the three protagonists are told in a parallel fashion without them having anything to do with one another at first sight, and still they are connected by a thread which only the viewer can see. This may be a bit problematic as it breaks common viewing habits but that's also what's making it so appealing. However, it is unfortunate that the story around cop Cheung gets too little time on screen.
"Life Without Principle" is very dialogue-heavy. In the beginning we are introduced to Teresa as she pitches different kinds of blocks of stocks and investment packages to her clients. But she isn't aggressive enough for the job and so she is outrivalled by her colleagues. Johnnie To exposes the coldbloodedness of banks with this story in a very bitter way. Banks which are only interested in their processing fee and are willing to gamble away the money of their clients in return. This way the winners of the game remain the banks no matter what happens. When it comes to the rest of Hong Kong things look different. Stock trading has become a national sport and everyone wants to make big money even though there naturally need to be as many losers as there are winners. This sort of embittered competition corrupts people and makes money their new god.
Of course tension is something that no Johnnie To movie should lack. This time it's the win or loss of money that decides the individuals' fate and not some serial killers in suits. Quick investments, fatal decisions, the struggle with your own conscience, just with that alone To manages to create some real tension without having to fire even one shot in his movie. This is thanks to his multilayered story in which a lot of important stuff happens, like we are used to see from him, when actually no one is talking. However, it needs to be criticized that the three characters in the movie would have deserved more color. Cheung remains very shallow as the upright and reflective cop, Panther on the other hand would have seems like a carricature on several occasions if it weren't for Lau Ching Wan who brings out the best of his character and thus makes him the movie's star, and this even though he just enters the stage after half an hour into the movie, but the most interesting and sadly also the most intransparent individual is Teresa, who we learn to like nonetheless.
"Life Without Principles" constantly runs the risk of overstepping the border of becoming a comedy with its black humor and certain absurdities, but Johnnie To keeps his film on course with a steady hand and thus those scenes become proof of his keen and uncovering eye with which he strips bare a corrupt society. The screenplay is clever but the individual stories don't seem to be fully fledged out. They are more of a small excerpt. This doesn't mean that the film has problems with its ending, on the contrary, it is in fact very well achieved, but some more depth concerning the several individuals and the story would have been nice. Fate does take strange paths and with To it always becomes somewhat of a living and breathing being that changes the lives of the protagonists forever. This is what makes "Life Without Principle" a successful To-film. Apart from that his ironic sense for details manages to strike a profound and socio-critical tone as well. With that the director manages to remain true to himself and yet has grown further.