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Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle is Occasionally Frustrating

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Life Without Principle 2011 movie review

Life Without Principle is a compelling portrait of greed and desperation…

Just one of the ever-prolific Johnnie To’s many efforts, Life Without Principle, weaves together a triumvirate of stories, each concerned with the effects of the current global economic crisis. Its English title is shared with a famous essay by Henry David Thoreau on righteous livelihood, and the film explores some of the principles of Thoreau’s doctrine in its examination of society’s relationship with money. One of its strengths is its cold framing, with shots divided into smaller segments against frequent backdrops of either shifting stock figures or oppressive business environments, almost suffocating its desperate characters. It fits due to their positions stuck in moral and economic crises. However, it is also highly appropriate given one story’s relation to the housing crisis. Every space in the frame must be filled, just like every available living space in Hong Kong must quickly be sold.

Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle
Image: Media Asia Distributions

That strand concerning the housing crisis involves a detective who, outside of work, is in a constant stand-off with his fiancée regarding investing in an expensive apartment, though it is a conflict that involves him never committing to a heavy discussion of the issue rather than verbal disputes. There’s also an investment manager at a bank who, in a desperate attempt to hit her monthly sales target, finds herself issuing high-risk investments to low-risk investors; unfortunately, the economic crash in Greece is just around the corner. Finally, a loyal low-level gangster called Panther becomes embroiled in various “easy money” schemes to help get his mob “brothers” out of trouble. Each of these individuals’ stories ends up revolving around an old loan shark, whose investments have actually seen a rapid rise thanks to his lending out of high-interest loans.

Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle
Image: Media Asia Distributions

Life Without Principle is a very pessimistic film about our attachment to money and material goods. The lone individual who maintains his principles, and those of Thoreau’s essay, is the gangster. He is the one character who doesn’t dwell on earnings for himself, only becoming involved with economic games thanks to his idealistic loyalties. To’s film is a compelling portrait of greed and desperation that isn’t overly preachy, though its convoluted nature can occasionally be frustrating.

Written by Josh Slater-Williams

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.

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