Making Waves – Navigators of Hong Kong Cinema
JOHNNIE WITHOUT A GUN – Tribute to Johhnie To
Life Without Principle
奪命金(Dyuht mihng gam)
Hong Kong, 2011, 107’, Cantonese
Directed by: Johnnie To
Screenplay: Milkyway Creative Team, Au Kin-yee, Wong King-fai
Photography (color): Cheng Siu-keung
Editing: Allen Leung
Production Design: Sukie Yip
Music: Yue Wei
Producer: Johnnie To
Cast: Lau Ching-wan (Panther), Richie Jen (Cheung), Denise Ho (Teresa Chan), Myolie Wu (Connie), Philip Keung (Lung), Lo Hoi-pang (Chung Yuen), Eddie Cheung (Ng Yiu-wah), So Hang-suen (Kun), Stephanie Che (Jackie), Tam Bing-man (Panther’s boss), JJ Jia (Ms Ho), Terence Yin (Mr Sung)
Date of First Release in Territory: October 20th, 2011
Johnnie To’s popular gangster cinema can be found in Life Without Principle, but it’s a pitch-black comedy with deep social concern that takes centre stage instead. Made in the wake of Hong Kong’s 2008 Lehman Brothers minibonds crisis, in which tens of thousands of Hongkongers lost their shirts over high-risk derivatives investments that hadn’t been properly explained, To’s 2011 picture plunges into unsparing satire of the finance and investment world and the money madness that grips people from all walks of life.
To pull that off, To links up a set of stories that skip through genres. Cop Cheung (Richie Jen) and his wife Connie (Myolie Wu) are in the market for a flat, and it’s a tense moment. They’ve visited a tiny and pricy flat with a sliver of sea view, and Connie wants to rush to buy before it’s sold to someone else and prices go higher. She’ll seek the loan services of Manton Bank, where employee Teresa Chan (Denise Ho) is falling behind on investment sales targets and must hurry up selling risky unit trusts. One of Teresa’s bank customers is Chung Yuen (Lo Hoi-pang), whose business as a loan shark is going great in hard times. Chung is linked to figures inhabiting the underworld, and it’s there that viewers meet Panther (Lau Ching-wan) and Brother Lung (Philip Keung). Panther is a trusty lieutenant for boss Mr Lai (Tam Bing-man) and is always on the go collecting and carting around money – his first jobs in the film are accounting at a banquet and raising bail for gangster Brother Wah (Eddie Cheung). Lung, on the other hand, has stepped away from regular gangland antics and moved into finance, running an illicit online futures operation behind a respectable facade.
With the characters all introduced, soon they’re crossing paths within a time-shifting narrative that for the most part springs along with a light-footed energy. Scenes of Cheung’s cop heroics balance with moments shared with a desperately worried wife; Panther’s big-talking underworld swagger sits alongside shots of him stumbling along through new topics. The film’s rhythm is accentuated by a cappella interludes set to a panning waterfront shot, but one long early sequence stands apart with its own pacing. In that scene, To slows the picture down for a step-by-step look at how a 60-year-old woman (So Hang-suen), assessed as being a low-risk, is coaxed into swapping her savings for potentially volatile unit trusts and happily plays along. The drawn-out detour into investment-sales nitty gritty makes for damning viewing – it’s a scene far removed from the styles To is best known for, yet one that’s every bit as purposeful in holding the viewer’s attention.
Regular players from Johnnie To’s cinema turn up with terrific roles in the gangster and cop scenes, not least Lau Ching-wan in a marvellous performance as a twitchy, almost primal figure who somehow muddles his way through chaos. Singer Denise Ho puts in a career-best film showing as a bank clerk who undergoes a sudden change in fortune, while TV actress Myolie Wu takes up a magnetic big-screen role as someone stressed to bits in the housing market.
The final scenes of Life Without Principle can feel unusually loose – one plot line abruptly stops with a feel-good moment and a happy freeze frame – yet the overall picture presents an exciting diversion in Johnnie To’s filmography. Here To’s focus on Hong Kong people amid the mania of investment markets, as well as plain old greed, adds a strong social element beside the thrill of his special line of black-comedy filmmaking.
Writer-director and producer To directed his first movie, The Enigmatic Case, in 1980 and his filmography since then has included many critical and box-office successes. In 1996, To co-founded production company Milkyway Image, working closely with writer-director Wai Ka-fai. The company drew attention for its thrillers such as A Hero Never Dies (1998) and The Mission (1999) before starting a run of commercially successful films with the release of To and Wai’s 2000 box-office champ Needing You… To has since gone on to find wider international recognition for movies including PTU (2003), Election (2005) and Exiled (2006).
1980 – The Enigmatic Case
1998 – A Hero Never Dies
1999 – The Mission
2000 – Needing You... (co-director)
2004 – Throwdown
2005 – Election
2006 – Exiled
2012 – Romancing in Thin Air
2016 – Three
2019 – Chasing Dream