Capitalist Punishment

Moral dilemmas and financial disaster in Johnnie To's Life Without Principle
by Shelly Kraicer  posted January 12, 2012
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To start the New Year, the Museum introduces First Look, a new annual showcase curated by Dennis Lim, Rachael Rakes, and David Schwartz. This two-weekend program—which brings together some of the most invigorating and inventive voices in contemporary world cinema, including established and emerging filmmakers—affirms our belief in cinema as a flourishing art form. To supplement the program, Moving Image Source is running a series of essays on all the feature films that are being shown. Check back daily from now through next weekend for new articles.

In Johnnie To's cinema world, a few simple elements usually serve to sketch out a plot. The filmmaker then builds structures around his sketchy content, with mirrors, parallels, exchanges, patterns, and variations. His procedure uncannily resembles how J.S. Bach constructs a fugue. The "content" (i.e., the foundational theme) doesn't much matter: it's the formal manipulation of that thematic material (in To's case, generic plot points, characters without much psychological complexity, a limited number of locations, basic dialogue) that defines the field of his creativity, just as, for Bach, it's the application of standard fugal techniques (counterpoint, voice leading, inversion, retrograde motion, stretto, and the like) that creates the musical work.

To's signature "personal" (his own term) works conform to this model most closely: A Hero Never Dies, Running Out of Time, The Mission, PTU, Exiled. In his romantic comedies, the films that actually make money for his company Milkyway Image, the balance between content and form is reversed. Formal principles still rule, but they recede to the background, underpinning films much more reliant on star power, character, and dialogue (his comedies starring Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau are good examples, such as the classic Needing You, or, most recently, Don't Go Breaking My Heart). In a few films, though, To experiments with something richer and more complex, working to balance the relative importance of content and form, while expressing something urgent about contemporary Hong Kong society (Election and its sequel Election 2 being the most prominent examples).

Life Without Principle looks like an intensification of To's experiments in balancing form and structure, taking Election as a departure. Still finding new ways to marry serious social content with formal virtuosity, To starts with three main characters, each of whom has his or her own story: a cop named Cheung (To standby Richie Ren, stiff but adequate, as usual), an investment counselor at a bank (played by well-known mainstream singer Denise Ho in a very strong performance that probably represents the best female role To has yet devised in a non-romantic film), and a small-time gangster, Panther (To favorite Lau Ching-wan, adding another fine expressive performance to one of Hong Kong cinema's most impressive acting résumés). The time is three days before and immediately following a critical moment in the world financial crisis, when the collapse of the Greek economy threatens widespread panic. Cheung's wife, Connie, wants to buy an expensive apartment, while he handles a typical To crime plot (murder in a rooming house, dangerous explosive standoff) with dispatch (this plot itself could have been the backbone of an entire To film; it's telling that it is relegated to a minor subplot in this film's grander sweep).

Life Without Principle

Life Without Principle

Connie's investment counselor, Teresa, is the second main character. She is always tense, underperforming at her job, under tremendous pressure of being fired. She induces an elderly client to make an inappropriately risky investment, then faces a moral quandary when another of her clients, rich loan shark Lung, is murdered, and leaves her with a heap of his cash by accident. Panther becomes embroiled in an old friend's black market stock trading scheme gone bad, and targets Lung and his money in an attempt to rescue his indebted buddy from the wrath of a mainland gangster boss.

The film creates a dense network of temporal, spatial, and narrative relationships among these three characters, moving freely forward, then back, then forward in time, while roving between one fixed location (the bank) and several others around Hong Kong (the tenement, an apartment building, several small offices). Tensions increase as the characters individually become victims of a financial system out of control, one that seems to have permeated all the public and private spaces of their lives with total monopoly—one might say hegemonic control—over their livelihoods, jobs, and futures.

After a series of films that comment, directly (Election) or indirectly (many of the others) on the changing political parameters of Hong Kongers' lives under increasingly pervasive mainland control, Life Without Principle steps back and looks, in very specific, concrete ways, at how international financial markets and the powerful institutions that exploit them have come strictly to define the horizons of what is possible in our lives.

This is the larger social context and "content" of this film, one very much unlike To's others. His new focus on socially embedded drama—might we even call it post-socialist/post-capitalist social-market narrative, which a Hong Konger under mainland governance like To is well qualified and situated to describe—entails some very different formal procedures and specific filmmaking decisions. This is the most script-based To film I've ever seen. Though there are some initial glimpses of blood, action, the genre and practice that has defined Johnnie To, is largely absent. The entire extended opening act is one long series of intense dialogues, mostly conducted by Teresa and her clients. It's not until relatively late in the narrative that we see a complex double murder and then a baroque stabbing. The latter functions more like action parody than action itself, Grand Guignol flamboyance denoting its status as extra-generic in context.

Life Without Principle

Life Without Principle

No guns, no knives: To's characters' weapons here are words. The most stunning sequence, Teresa's near-swindling of that hapless elderly investor, is a daringly extended 10-minuteseries of repeated conversational mottos, punctuated by more words on video and interviews stretched so far that they seem to be the verbal equivalent of an action director's deployment of slow motion. To's action here is all discursive: it's talk that people fight with, talk that defines their relationships with each other, and talk that propels the conflicts. To's usual obsessions with spatial relationships, motion, stillness, his action sequences based on tension and release in precisely defined spaces—these are all neutralized, pushed to the background of the film, sublimated into a different kind of structural investigation.

To, in his way, is as committed a cinematic structuralist as James Benning, but his formal obsessions are displaced here onto what we can call social forms. Each of the main characters is an individual initially defined by his or her place in a powerful political-social structure. Cheung is a policeman, an agent of state order enforcement. Teresa is a tool (victim as much as perpetrator) of a predatory banking system. Panther is a bit gangster embedded in a violent criminal society ruled by a strict code of brotherhood. Two of the three characters find ways to begin to live as autonomous individuals outside of the structures they inhabit. Their futures open with new promise as they shed their collectively defined identities and head out on their own. The cop fits less comfortably into this schema: the quick, forced resolution of his story (reinstituting a family structure) is the weakest aspect of Life Without Principle, something the film seems to recognize by abruptly ending with a seemingly undermotivated freeze frame.

But there's nothing unsatisfying about Teresa's and Panther's tales: they are set at opposite emotional temperatures (Teresa's cool tense stillness is balanced by Panther's hot hyper-charged manic flailings) but eerily parallel. Banks and triad societies aren't that different today: they destroy lives with equal insouciance (though To's movie gangsters get to do it with a bit more flair). To here swings his formalist guns to point at the damage post-capitalist neo-liberalism is doing to society. And he is now making vital, engaged cinema out of the underlying moral structures he unearths. 


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Indomina Releasing
Life Without Principle, directed by Johnnie To
Photo Gallery: Capitalist Punishment


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Shelly Kraicer is a Beijing-based writer, critic, and film curator. He has written for Cinema Scope, Positions, Cineaste, The Village Voice, and Screen International. Since 2007, he has been a programmer of East Asian films for the Vancouver International Film Festival, and has consulted for the Venice, Udine, Dubai, and Rotterdam International Film Festivals.

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