Saturday, October 20, 2012

Submitted by Hong Kong: Life Without Principle

The Academy’s rules for best foreign language film submissions can be real head-scratchers.  Just by giving the decision-making power to the countries of original they virtual guaranteed no dissident cinema will ever be nominated.  This year, Hong Kong’s official submission was actually in local theaters before last year’s submission, but the both met the official requirements.  Regardless, Hong Kong has put forward a number of excellent films in recent years, without getting any love from Oscar.  Following Johnnie To’s super-cool Exiled, Alex Law’s exceptional Echoes of the Rainbow, and Ann Hui’s understated but powerful A Simple Life, Hong Kong has officially submitted To’s ripped-from-the-headlines Life Without Principle (trailer here), which is already available on DVD.

Greece is about to cause a lot of trouble for hard working Hong Kong residents on both sides of the law.  As the socialist basket case threatens to drag down the world economy, it will leave a number of people in precarious positions.  Inspector Cheung Jin-fong would not know anything about that.  Like usual, he is working a case, but his wife is about to enter into a dubious mortgage so they can purchase the apartment of her dreams.

That transaction will bring her to the office of Teresa, who is currently ranking dead last amongst her fellow boiler room colleagues.  Aware her job is on the line, she sells a dodgy BRIC fund to an elderly client, who really should have known better.  Teresa would really prefer to get her hands on some of the money loan shark Yuen has in his account, but he is strictly a cash man. 

As it turns out, others have had this idea too.  When underworld investment banker Lung loses the wrong people’s money during the ensuing financial panic, he and his low level Triad crony Panther plot to rob Yuen after he makes a withdrawal.  Again, they are not the only ones with that idea.

Principle skips about quite a bit, flashing forward and backward in time, while crisscrossing between its various characters.  Yet, To and his regular editor David Richardson maintain narrative clarity throughout.  Still, it is a bit of a slow starter, with much of the first act devoted to making the financial sector look like venal sharks.  Frankly, if Teresa’s dear old sucker is not suspicious after they make her watch several cautionary videos and sign off on waiver after waiver, than you wonder how she navigates a big bad city like HK.

Nonetheless, when the gangsterism intersects with the financial shenanigans, the picture really begins to click.  Here To is back on familiar turf.  Lau Ching-wan, Philip Keung, and Lo Hoi-pang ham it up with gusto as the in-over-his-head Panther, the sleazy Lung, and the even sleazier Yuen, respectively.  J.J. Jia also has some memorable moments as Lung’s femme fatale colleague, Ms. Ho.  Yet, though perfectly cast as the taciturn copper, Richie Jen (another To/Milky Way team regular) is oddly short-changed on screen time throughout Principle.

Principle is an entertaining film, but it does not pack the same punch as Simple Life or Echoes.  On the other hand, its financial tsk-tsking might appeal more to Academy voters.  At least To’s international reputation ought to earn it an attentive audience when it screens for the Academy’s foreign language committee.  Currently streaming on Netflix, Life Without Principle is a strong closer, definitely recommended for fans of HK film, but just not as satisfying as To’s Exiled and Vengeance.