Saturday, October 22, 2011

Life Without Principle (奪命金 / Dyut Meng Gam)

Thank You For Banking With Us

Five million dollars, accounted for but not under your name, and untraceable back to you. What will you do? That sets up the basic premise of the latest film by Johnnie To, Hong Kong's maestro of crime thrillers, which had its premiere recently at the Venice Film Festival, bringing together the usual stellar cast of Lau Ching Wan and Ritchie Jen, sharing top billing with Denise Ho in what would be a marked departure from the guns and bullets element, to something that touches a raw nerve with everyone in this day and age of economic woe, and questionable tactics introduced by financial systems worldwide.

Phonetically, the word "Principle" is often confused with "Principal" though in this case it worked brilliantly in introducing themes and elements for the film. It questions one's values in battling the innate temptation of man and our inherent greed especially when one is dead sure to get away with misconduct (then again, by whose measure), and while some may subscribe to the mantra of greed being good, it also highlights the common aggressive techniques used by unscrupulous bankers backed by a loose system of checks and balances, that many have fallen victim to very sexy, paper profit margins without adequately addressing and fully understanding the risks involved. Yes with high risks bring very high returns, but one also stands to lose once principal and capital investment when buyers get blinded and blind-sided, with greed ensuring swift collapse like a house built with a deck of cards.

Written by Cheung Ka Kit, Yau Nai Hoi and Yip Tin Shing, Life Without Principle aims itself squarely at financial markets and the corrupt ecosystem at play, and spends a significant first arc in combining often heard and experienced elements into the story. Denise Ho plays Teresa, a banking relationship officer measured by her sales figures, which means the more she pushes for the sales of riskier products, the better her commission and profitability to the bank. We understand her pressure and predicament, but one's values of caution gets thrown out the window when one's job is on the line, made worse by a pushy manager. Late nights and cold calls (getting the treatment any of us will usually dish out) become the norm, and having two key customers in Lo Hoi Pang's shady money-lender, an extremely savvy investor but of course, and in So Hang Shuen's heartland elderly woman who has little knowledge of finance other than to put her money in the bank, provided that opportunity for broad contrast in customers who know how to work the bank, and those who the bank knows how to work.

You'll even come to the belief that banks everywhere provides meagre, negligible savings interest rate only to entice you to its complicated, though sexier financial instruments that scream high returns, but comes with the fine print the thickness of a phone directory and print that only an ant could read. But that won't translate well on film, so a similar element in taped conversations and going through the motion, which many of us are susceptible to, get played out instead. You can't help but to shake your head at what's put on screen as a third person witnessing how things develop, although how many of us can say we won't get tempted when actually put in the same hot seat with the promise of money being made thrown at us, that will come with a signature and a trust that the bank, a business entity that exists to make profits from anyone, anything and anywhere, has your interest at heart?

The other major arc is equally brilliant with To retaining the gangster element in his stories, with Lau Ching Wan starring as a non too bright gangster muscle, loyal to a fault and always there for his sworn brothers. His honest nature makes him the unofficial trusted treasurer of this boss, in a time where even gangsters have problems with recruiting and retaining men, who will walk off at the first signs of trouble. So much for loyalty these days, with the attitudes of the strawberry generation being felt even to the underworld.

Fans of Lau Ching Wan will undoubtedly see some shades of a popular character he played for in one of the blockbuster television series of its day involving the financial markets, especially in a build up to an ironic twist, but he also added some performing layers to his character and somehow his simpleton endears. His role here serves to highlight how even gangster have to change with the times of economic uncertainty, where knives and guns get traded off for computers and market savvy, making money through the push of a button rather than the heydays of fighting for territory and seeking one's riches through the traditional revenue pipelines of prostitution, gambling and drugs. It took quite a while to get to where it was supposed to, but as the adage goes it's never about the destination but the journey, where Lau mesmerizes with his performance in a one man tour de force, and a slew of Milkyway regulars, with the conspicuously absence of Lam Suet, surely made this arc the best of the lot, from Eddie Cheung, Felix Wong, Law Wing Cheong, and a whole lot of others springing up to lend support.

And the last arc may serve as a filler since it's the most spread out of the three, but no less satisfying, and I thought it was easily identifiable here since it speaks directly at our pursuit of economic aspiration and the incredible long hours at work we put. Ritchie Jen's Cheung the cop whose wife Connie (Myolie Wu) desires that swanky new condominium that they can barely afford its mortgage. Living within or beyond one's means is a decision the couple has to take, although in Cheung's case, he seems to be more at home spending time at work, rather than to address his deteriorating personal life, until an incident, as always, puts things back into proper perspective.

While the narrative is presented in a non-linear fashion, the narrative is incredibly easy to follow, with each significant moment setting the pace for those that follow, or to provide the audience with the sense of "if only he/she knew", which in fact is exactly what our attitudes are in life when we sit down to analyze seemingly disparate issues, and how close they each come toward one another than we could have had imagined. Here the Greek economic crisis, something so macro and relatively far away, shows how closely inter-connected we all are in today's global village, where concerns and decisions made thousands of miles away can impact the individual man in profound ways.

Life Without Principle is a carefully crafted film that can work anywhere, but I'm glad Johnnie To got to it first, and provided one thought-provoking and gripping film that is wonderfully contemporary. Certainly one of the best films of the year, and is highly recommended. I'll probably dip into the DVD as well for its original Cantonese language track when the time comes, to view this just as it was intended.

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