Johnnie To may be the premiere crime-film director of the present time. His films about Chinese triads have a reputation as slick, sleek thrillers with a classical gravitas beyond the B-movie material. For his most recent film he keeps one foot in the gangster milieu but expands his scope to sweep across Hong Kong society, showing how everyone -- crooks and cops, bankers and brokers -- gets caught up in the maelstrom of a global economic crisis. Almost inevitably, his story -- the work of five writers -- takes a Tarantinian non-linear form. That is, it's only well after we're introduced to new characters that we learn that their story intersects with that of the characters previously introduced at the point in time when we left those characters. Some find the concept tired by now, but To and his writers keep it fresh by luring us to expect something to happen and surprising us with something else.
Life Without Principle features four primary characters in three storylines. The first we meet are actually the least developed, a cop and his wife who are arguing over whether to close on a high-rise apartment. From them the spotlight shifts to Teresa (Denise Ho), an investment broker under the gun. She's last on the sales chart and the office gossip is that whoever finishes last loses her job. She works late trying to scare up business but she seems to lack the gift for sales. She finally finds a prospect in an elderly woman impatient at the interest rate in her current plan. The old lady is rated a low-risk investor but Teresa pushes the high-risk package on her, promising huge and rapid profits. This section culminates in an ingeniously excruciating scene in which Teresa is obliged to record the old woman acknowledging and consenting to the risk. Teresa has coached her to say "I understand completely" whenever prompted, but as Teresa goes through her script questions keep arising. Twice over, Teresa has to scrap the recording and start over again after reassuring her client. Finally, her boss witnesses the transaction and the old woman explains her reason for risky investing: "I want more money."
Teresa is kept off-balance by Yuen (Lo Hoi-pang), a loan shark who's made a timely cash withdrawal just before the markets take a dive. Greece is on the brink of defaulting on its debt and dragging the entire global financial market with it, and people are panicking while Yuen gloats at his own cleverness, taking calls constantly. He learns that he doesn't need as much ready cash as he thought and gives several million back to Teresa, telling her to re-deposit it. He doesn't have time to do the paperwork himself and rushes off, leaving his cellphone behind. Noticing this when she hears his Peking Opera ringtone, Teresa rushes after him, reaching the parking garage to find cops converging on his car. The man appears to be dead, slumped against his windshield with blood streaming down his face.
The spotlight shifts again to small-time gangsterdom. We now follow the misadventures of Panther (Lau Ching Wan), a rumpled fixer who seems to get along by the seat of his pants. He makes a big show of delivering payments to his boss and arranging for a banquet, without necessarily knowing everything on the menu. The banquet is disrupted by the arrival of the West Kowloon Police, who arrest Panther's Boss Wah. It's now up to Panther to scare up bail money, which isn't as easy as you might assume. Money seems scarce everywhere, and our man has to spend a lot of time buttering up a junk man who taunts Panther, claiming that he makes more money collecting cardboard than he does as a criminal. He finally coughs up some money just to be rid of the earnest and increasingly hapless-seeming gangster. In any event, Boss Wah makes bail, but moments later the East Kowloon Police show up to arrest him and Panther needs to find more bail money.
Panther looks up another "sworn brother" who runs some sort of underground day-trading business. Brother Lung (Phillip Keung) boasts of his success and urges Panther to learn how to play the market, leaving him a chart of trends to study while he steps out briefly. Dutifully Panther studies the chart until Lung bursts back in, desperate to log on and sell some rapidly depreciating assets. It's too late; Lung has been shut out of his accounts and faces ruin. So now Panther needs to find money for Lung, and a loan-shark they know seems the most likely target. At this point, since we recognize their quarry as Yuen from Teresa's story, we can guess what will happen as Panther breaks into the man's car in the parking garage. But as he lies in wait, someone else entirely attacks the loan shark while Panther huddles helplessly in the back seat. The two men brawl, the mugger bashing the loan shark over the head with a tire iron. The older man is tough, though. He gets up and bashes his attacker from behind, finally beating him to death and stomping back to the car before the effects of his own injury catch up to him. Panther finally slips out with a few millions before the cops and Teresa arrive at the scene.
While Teresa faces a simple, classical moral dilemma -- with no paperwork indicating that the loan shark left any money with her, and with the carjacking apparently explaining any loss, should she take the money and run? -- Panther's adventures become a regular day from hell. He and Lung are soon accosted by one of the bigger players in the clandestine market, someone whom Lung owes big time. Panther puts himself in danger simply through his inability to keep his mouth shut, but the big man seems more amused than angered by him. Lung's another story, however, and the guy takes some sort of floral-design icepick and drives it through Lung's breast. The good news, he tells Panther, is that Lung might live if Panther gets him to a hospital in time. He lets them go, and Lung takes the wheel as they head off for help. But Lung remains more interested in getting money than in keeping alive -- he seems to think money will save him. After almost getting trapped in a converging circle of police detours -- these are related to a suspense storyline involving Inspector Cheung -- Lung drops Panther off outside another brokerage with desperate instructions to bet their remaining loot on the market continuing to drop. Inside, Panther promptly forgets the instructions and has to rely on his own hunch. He bets that the market will rise. In a blackly comic climax, the market continues to fall as an unwitting and dying Lung roots the trend down in his car and Panther despairs in the brokerage. Then, improbably, the market reverses -- Greece will be bailed out -- and as Panther rejoices a horrified Lung, not realizing his good fortune, stumbles into the street to make a final cry for help, only to be ignored as the cops focus on the hostage situation nearby.
To ends the film on an unnecessary note with Teresa (I'll leave her decision unspoiled) and Panther almost crossing paths on a crowded street, but with uncertainty still hanging over the city. Where will Teresa go from here? After his ordeal, does Panther remember that he still needs to bail out Boss Wah? The English-language title doesn't necessarily clarify things, especially when Panther seems to be the most principled person in the picture in his doglike devotion to too many bosses and sworn brothers. To the extent that Teresa is a sympathetic character -- I expect audiences to empathize with the worker on the firing line with an impossible goal imposed on her -- I wonder whether To wants us to root for her to take the money or not. It may be one of those situations where the idea is to implicate the audience; if you root for Teresa and/or Panther to take the money, aren't you involved in a life without principle? Or do you apply survival logic and assume that in a world without principle people had better look out for themselves? These moral complications only enhance the picture, and the performances by poker-faced Denise Ho and frantic Lau Ching Wan are pillars that keep the whole structure aloft, with support from a fine ensemble, several of whom (along with Lau) have won awards for their work here. Life Without Principle is one of the best films so far to deal with the ongoing economic crisis, and possibly the most entertaining of them.