Johnnie To’s 2011 diptych pivots on the 2008 and current financial crises, the former playfully engaged with producer-writer Wai Ka-fai in the highly formalized romance Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (written on by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky here earlier), and now with the unfailingly ironic Venice competition entry, Life without Principle.
Just as the romance was itself split in two—with a woman torn between two men working in opposite office buildings—To’s new drama is taken in two parts that fold and, fittingly, collapse by the film’s end. The first panel brings a brutal factual and procedural exactitude to the anecdote of a young bank clerk (Denise Ho) whose suffering quarterly results force her to beg, cringe and misguide her clients so she can avoid a phantom hint at redundancy. We see her office tasks and protocol, including a lengthy and unsettlingly suspenseful signing of an investment agreement with a suffering, befuddled old woman. Through To’s precise decoupage, playing with the public bustle of the bank and the private niches, like boldly-colored interrogation chambers, where secrets are confessed and deals are signed, captures a straight-faced treatment of process and behavior, nearly absent of story, and achieving an utterly sinister and foreboding space of work and ethics.
The second panel stars To regular Lau Ching-wan as "Panther," a begging-and-scraping assistant to a local gangster boss, an obliging and selfless man who does everything he can to help his gang and his brothers. Arrest after arrest forces him to travel around the city calling in debts and favors to assemble bail money, a process that quickly, almost surreally, tumbles into stock market speculation with one of his flashy gangster buddies. This financial frenzy of both clerk and assistant, basing their lives around unthinkingly wheedling money from people and seeding it hither and thither comes to a shatteringly halt, as we might expect, when the 2011 crash hits (already, in a film premiering September, 2011!) and the structures the clerk and the assistant have built their lives around have the rug violently yanked from under them.
The clerk’s story is all psychology—we watch her suppress her human instincts and observe the behavior of others, betting their futures for her to survive hers. The assistant is all physical—a nervous, blinking energy machine of selflessness, so integrated into heartfelt loyalty to his clan to prevent his mind from contradicting his instincts. The oppressive mise-en-scène of the bank is contrasted to street-roaming and gangster opulence–Lau’s segment’s opening banquet scene is a masterpiece of motion and side observation, minor narratives and dense visual textures, and a later confrontation with a vengeful investor takes place in an obsidian-cloaked backroom filled with golden animal heads. There, To stages an elaborate two-part action between the investor confronting Lau and his investment brother, and while the brother tries to talk his way out of repercussions, the Lau gesticulates hilariously in the background in a pathetic attempt to rescue his gangmate with bottles of Johnnie Walker Black (a carry-over visual motif from Don’t Go Breaking My Heart).
A robbery and a murder—appropriately enough, of a ruthless, lecherous loan shark—unites these two humble underlings and gives them both the chance to save themselves, at least financially. Between them rides a third undercurrent narrative, a police officer (Richie Ren) who is too busy solving crimes around Kong Kong to commit to the speculation—here, the expensive lifestyle his wife begs him to sign for (high rise apartment, a new child)—the other two are knee deep in. The bank clerk, gang assistant, and detective weave around each other, connected by a kind of refraction of their behavior in life into a flow of ethical and unethical behavior. Life without Principle eliminates the clinically fun hijinks of the To-Wai 2011 film but retains its film world that densely ties together the destinies of Hong Kong inhabitants into a jigsaw-like web of ethical actions and rippling, often unknown or unexpected repercussions. The two films form a ruthless, absolutely requisite vision of the world translated into cinematic terms, and each of their highly ironically arbitrary, ostensibly happy endings beg ask truly uncomfortable questions about the world outside cinema and how the world inside cinema deals with it.