Life Without Principle – A New Hong Kong Movie

What do a stock broker, actually a bank rep who handles investments for clients, a homicide detective, and a low-level triad enforcer have in common? This is the question that famed Hong Kong film director Johnny To puts before us in his brand new film, Life Without Principle.

Johnny To has received world-wide acclaim  for his stylish and hard-hitting films in the cops and crooks genre but he doesn’t limit himself to just those. In fact, I’ve reviewed a couple of his more recent films – Vengeance which had a relatively low police presence, and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart which was basically a romance. Besides those, I have personally seen close to a dozen of his older films.  That was one of the plusses of living in Manhattan – my proximity to the NY Chinatown where I could easily buy Hong Kong films on DVD. This time I caught his new film, which opened about a month ago on the 20th of October, at a real movie house – the UA Cinema in Taikoo, Hong Kong.

Okay, okay – enough off topic chatter. Let’s get back to the film. The first of the three main characters that we meet is the cop. Richie Jen (below) plays Inspector Cheung. As we first lay eyes on him, he is working a case that he caught. He’s on-site of a fresh murder. One old timer, a pensioner, has murdered another. This event doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but the murderer and the Inspector will cross paths again.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Inspector Cheung’s wife, played by Myolie Wu, is hot to buy an apartment. He thinks they need to discuss it further. But she is vulnerable to the real estate broker’s sale pitch (and not so subtle pressure tactics) about how time is of the essence, and that other buyers are preparing offers. So Cheung and Mrs are looking at getting a hefty mortgage.

Inspector Cheung and Mrs Cheung

Lau Ching Wan (below) plays the triad guy known as Panther. He’s a guy in his 40’s and he’s well known, and respected in the triad world. He serves as a bagman, he sets up dinners, he’s a go-fer, and above everything else he believes in loyalty. Panther will run around trying to raise bail money when that’s needed for one of his associates.He’s a presence in the Hong Kong triad circles, and everyone in his triad is his ‘sworn brother’.

Today, he’s going to need a ton of money and he’ll need to get it fast because one of his triad buddies has been running an internet investment house, and the market is turning, and his buddy’s client has threatened him with mayhem or worse.

Denise Ho plays Teresa, the bank rep here. When we first meet her, she’s attending a sales meeting. She’s not doing well (actually she has the least amount of sales than anyone else on the team), and her boss wants her to amp up her sales figures, or else … she’ll be given the dreaded see-me-after-work notification; a sure sign that one is being fired. So she’s got to get her ass in gear and bring in mucho investment dollars.

Denise Ho as Teresa

So she starts cold calling new people, then when that doesn’t bring in any results beyond her getting some telephonic abuse, she starts contacting her existing clients. This is when the movie both slows down and accelerates at the same time. The first meaningful client is an old lady who isn’t investment savvy at all. Teresa runs her client’s profile and a report  details that she’s definitely a client that should be put only into low risk securities. But this lady is complaining about bank fees, low interest rates, and how she’s struggling on her fixed retirement income. She says she’s willing to take a risk.

Took the bait, hooked, and ready to invest

Teresa recommends an investment fund which is high return/high risk. It is called BRIC – because it invests in Real Estate Mortgages in such countries as Brazil, India, etc. Director To spends a lot of time with this segment – it is almost agonizingly slow. Teresa has to play a video for her client about this investment vehicle, then she has to coach her about what to say because they will need to make a recorded conversation where the client will state flatly that she understands the risk and is very willing to take such a risk. But the old lady is bewildered to a degree and gets her responses confused, so they have to stop and then re-start the recording many, many times.

The second client is Inspector Cheung’s wife. She comes in for a mortgage.

The third client is a loan-shark. Teresa tries to peddle the BRIC to him, but he’s far too savvy. He only uses the bank to keep his money in, and he can calculate the bank fees in his head. When Teresa says he should buy $20 million of the BRIC and pay the bank 2% as a transaction fee – he immediately says, What, and give the bank a 40K fee?  So he’s not about to make a big investment through Denise. He shows her and us how he does far better by means of his loan shark business. He says something along the lines of my money is working for me not for the bank. He actually turns Teresa’s sales pitch inside out and asks her to call if she wants to make money or needs money. That day, he’s come in to withdraw 10 Million HK dollars which he is going to lend out, so while the money is being prepared he chats with Teresa.

The money is brought to her office. While they’re putting it into a big bag, he gets a call. He’s got to run off to see his client. He’s going to take only 5 million with him. He wants the other five million to be put back into the account. Teresa says, you’ll need to fill out a deposit slip. He says, No time, I’ll do it next time. Just hold the money for me. So Teresa has the five million on her desk – she puts it into a cabinet and locks it.

Meanwhile things are in motion both locally, globally, as well as specifically in the bank’s parking garage. Locally Panther’s friend needs a quick influx of cash – so Panther sets off to meet the loan shark.

But there is a snatch and grab in the bank’s garage about to happen – with the loan shark as the target.

Also on this very day we have news of the possibility of a default in Greece, which could trigger a collapse of the Euro, and on stock exchanges all over the world, things will become chaotic.

The beauty of all of this is that Johnny To is able to tie all of this together – The Cheung’s, the loan shark, Panther, Teresa, the old lady in the high risk investment vehicle, a tumbling market, and that 10 million withdrawal, half in Teresa’s  cabinet and half in the loan-shark’s bag.

Johnny To really delivers with this film. You do have sit through some lengthy scenes that will serve two purposes – one to set up the specific characters’ motivations, and 2) to  create and establish that Hong Kongers – from the very wealthy to the old lady living on a fixed income – are all greedy. Everyone wants money, and whether it be for gambling on horse racing, betting on sports, or running an illegal boiler-room financial operation, loan sharking, armed robbery, kick-backs up the line to the triad bosses, or even something as mundane cosmetics, phones, and clothing accessories, or as normal as being a financial rep for a bank – the film shows us that everyone is money-mad.

But for every winning bet there is a losing bet. Sometimes the people who set up long positions in their security holdings make money, and sometimes they lose money. Ditto for the short sellers. Honest cops stay where they are in a struggle, and crooks steal out of greed.

I really liked this drama. In one sense the film starts then you must endure a slowing of the pace all of which is quite deliberate. But then you are going to receive a terrific payoff in terms of viewing pleasure when To’s magic become evident. His pacing, editing, even the music score are just wonderful in this film. Just looking at his shot composition is often breathtaking. This is a brand new film so you will likely have to wait for the DVD or Netflix to get it. But, trust me, it will be worth your time. Of course, maybe you are already in Hong Kong – in which case, go see it right now.