It's been almost exactly one month since Daniel Kasman reviewed Johnnie To's "unfailingly ironic" Life Without Principle following its premiere in Competition in Venice. The film carries on winding its way through the festival circuit, though, and just yesterday, David Bordwell posted an entry on it from Vancouver (and by the way, the VIFF roundup is still being updated).
"Taken together," writes Bordwell, "the laconic and elliptical approaches to storytelling make The Mission, Running Out of Time, The Longest Nite, The Mad Detective, and the last episode of Triangle into narrative games — games of wits among the characters, but also between the filmic narration and the audience." With Life without Principle, "To embarks on a full-blown network narrative. The film follows three clusters of characters across three days, with the last day showing the collapse in world stock markets caused by the Greek debt crisis…. Designing a network plot offers you essentially two options. You can intercut all the strands as the protagonists move through time together (as in Nashville) or you can segregate the plotlines into blocks, as in the 'chapters' of Pulp Fiction or the character-tagged chunks of Go. In the block pattern, some chronological fiddling will be necessary…. Life without Principle takes the block option."
"To, often considered the last great holdover from Hong Kong's glory days as the epicenter of action cinema, generally isn't referred to as an issues filmmaker," writes Kevin B Lee at Fandor. "But there is a socially critical subtext to some of his work (Breaking News; Election) that comes to the fore in this complex study of how Hong Kongers respond to the global financial meltdown. A bank teller, a loan shark, a gangster and a cop's family are connected through a crime involving 10 million HK dollars; their actions illustrate prevailing values typical in To's homeland that prove tragicomically insufficient in facing the crisis at hand. The ambitious narrative folds back on itself without warning, but To is so confident in his movement through scenes that even power point presentations and computer screens sustain the story's velocity."
The AV Club's Noel Murray: "There's scarcely a minute of Life Without Principle that isn't obvious, with To directly comparing investing to gambling, and chastising the banks for making money while everyone else is sinking. But the movie is relentless and exciting, and expansive in its critique of the various ways institutions screw the individual. The banks take their fees; the mob bosses take their cuts… At one point, a fabulously rich loan shark consoles the banker, saying, 'If money can solve it, it's not a problem.' But those are far from reassuring words in Life Without Principle — not when that loan shark is robbed and killed less than ten minutes later."
"One might consider this a less-bloody companion piece to Pang Ho-Cheung's Dream Home, a film where its heroine will commit gore-soaked murders to lower the price of her condo, but Life Without Principle is a far more complicated story and a fair bit more fun," writes Kurt Halfyard at Twitch. "It's as breathless, in its own way, as the opening one-take shoot-out in Breaking News."
Update, 10/11: "To achieves something along the quality of say, Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, when the film is working," finds Erik McClanahan at the Playlist. "Actually, it's even more similar to that director's latest, Contagion, but instead of focusing on the fast-moving dissemination of information and the rapid spreading of a lethal virus, Principle shows the fluidity and rapidity of money changing hands, always in flux. One minute you're rich, the next you're dirt poor. But when things aren't working so well in the film, it's more akin to Crash, with sometimes-laughable coincidences in place of solid storytelling."
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