Life Without Principle (奪命金, Johnnie To, 2011)

A financial earthquake destabilises the ordinary lives of a series of Hong Kongers in Johnnie To’s circular thriller, Life Without Principle (奪命金). As one character puts it, greed is human and everyone always seems to want more but even a little is out of the reach of many and so perhaps their desire is understandable in a world in which a loan shark can lord it over the bank who are in essence little better than he is in exploiting their customers by charging them extortionate fees yet failing to protect their investments. 

Just before the financial crisis of 2008, bank clerk Teresa (Denise Ho Wan-see) is beginning to fear for her job because she’s stuck at the bottom of the staff sales leader board and her boss doesn’t even bother to tell her off anymore. Under pressure she finds herself misselling a high risk BRIC loan to an older woman seemingly fearful of her declining economic power and hoping to make her savings pay a little more rather than just sitting in the bank doing nothing. Meanwhile Teresa is at the constant beck and call of boorish loanshark Yuen (Lo Hoi-pang) who won’t take out a loan with her because banks just rip you off. “Business is about profit but you have to play fair” he unironically explains handing over a card in case Teresa ever needs a “fair” loan pointing out you’ll pay 35% interest on a credit card but he’ll give you 15% even with bad credit. In any case, he leaves with only half of the 10 million he took out, asking Teresa to deposit the rest and sort the forms out later because he’s in a hurry, only he ends up getting offed in the car park meaning that second five million is in paper limbo. 

Teresa can’t really argue that the bank is morally any better than the loanshark, only that what they’re doing is legally regulated even if she has just broken a series of regulations in talking the old woman into the risky loan because she herself fears a financial crisis in losing her job. Meanwhile in another part of the city, one old man ends up killing another in a property dispute amid the city’s notoriously difficult housing market. The policeman investigating, Cheung (Richie Jen), is ironically called away because his wife, Connie (Myolie Wu Hang-yee), is nagging him about buying a new apartment requiring a one million deposit on a 30-year mortgage. She complains that he’s stubborn and overcautious, but he is at least pretty much the only person showing any kind of prudence in the cutthroat investment world even as he hesitates on learning that his estranged father is at death’s door leaving behind an illegitimate little girl it falls on he and his wife to adopt. 

If Cheung’s caution seems cold, it’s ironically mirrored in the film’s only pure hearted hero, ironic triad parody Panther (Sean Lau Ching-wan) who only cares about old-fashioned ideals like gangster loyalty even if those ideals are often expressed through money. Complimented by a boss for not trying to steal from a wedding collection he nevertheless games the restauranteur but only desires money in order to bail out his gangster friend Wah (Cheung Siu-fai) who is immediately deserted by all his minions who obviously don’t have the same ideas of loyalty as old school Panther. “Loyalty matters most” he insists to an old friend who left the triads to work as a junk collector because you can make more money recycling cardboard than in the contemporary underworld. Even his former sworn brother Lung (Philip Keung Ho-man) has managed to do very well for himself as a legitimate businessman hosting online gambling platforms and playing the stock market. 

Yet as Panther pores over data it becomes obvious that they are all betting on the market remaining the same, blindsided by the advent of the Greek Debt crisis and its devastating destabilisation. They thought they had control, that the decisions they made based on the data they received would remain correct only to realise that they are almost entirely powerless. Teresa fiddles with the jammed lock on her cabinet as she vacillates over whether or not to cash out of the corporate life with the “invisible” money, while Connie reckons with potentially losing her deposit when the already risky mortgage application is turned down, and the old lady is left to face potential financial ruin all alone in the twilight of her life. Then again, fate is fickle. The crisis passes as quickly as it arrived allowing a kind of normality to return but finding the desperate protagonists largely unchanged if perhaps emboldened by the feeling of relief resulting from their accidental lucky escapes from certain ruin. A slick and intricately plotted elliptical thriller, Life Without Principle revels in cosmic ironies but nevertheless holds only scorn for the dubious promises of spiralling consumerism in an increasingly jaded society.


Life Without Principle screens at London’s Prince Charles Cinema on 7th July as part of The Heroic Mission: Johnnie To Retrospective.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shock Wave (拆彈專家, Herman Yau, 2017)

shock wave posterRecent Hong Kong action cinema has not exactly been known for its hero cops. Most often, one brave and valiant officer stands up for justice when all around him are corrupt or acting in self interest rather than for the good of the people. Shock Wave (拆彈專家) sees Herman Yau reteam with veteran actor Andy Lau turning in another fine action performance at 55 years of age as a dedicated, highly skilled and righteous bomb disposal officer who becomes the target of a mad bomber after blowing his cover in an undercover operation. These are universally good cops fighting an insane terrorist whose intense desire for revenge and familial reunion is primed to reduce Hong Kong’s central infrastructure to a smoking mess.

Some years prior to the main action, J S Cheung (Andy Lau) is undercover with a gang of bomb loving bank robbers. When they decide to load up a few taxis with explosives, Cheung just can’t let innocent people and fellow officers get caught in the crossfire and so he blows his cover and tips the cops off to the weaponised motor vehicles. Head honcho of the gang, Blast (Jiang Wu), is not best pleased especially as his younger brother Biao (Wang Ziyi) gets himself arrested. Flash forward to the present day and Blast has come up with his plot for revenge – placing large amounts of explosives in the Cross Harbour Tunnel and taking everyone in the general area hostage until the authorities agree to release his brother and he’s satisfied himself in outwitting Cheung.

In this at least Shock Wave fits neatly into the mad bomber genre as Blast goes to great lengths to terrorise the public for irrational and entirely selfish reasons. Blast’s original twin motives centre on a need to get his brother out of prison and the need to destroy Cheung but Biao has decided one of the reasons he quite liked being in prison was that Blast wasn’t there and Cheung isn’t really interested in playing Blast’s game. Blast, as his brother points out, is someone who rarely considers the thoughts or emotions of other people, acting selfishly and assuming his own desires are the only ones which matter. This essential selfishness is echoed in a fairly subtle point about the financial impact of the tunnel crisis and how others stand to profit from it while hundreds people remain terrified and captive inside a giant tube surrounded by water which may soon collapse if Blast loses his temper.

Th mad bomber may be a cinematic staple but Shock Wave relies too heavily on familiar genre elements to make much on an impact of its own. Characterisation is often shallow in the hero cop vs insane criminal set up with supporting characters reduced to a single prominent emotion. The inevitable romantic subplot gives Cheung an emotionally fragile, recently divorced school teacher as an angelic girlfriend only to have her experience sudden qualms about getting involved with someone who does such a dangerous job.

Even if the narrative fails to impress, Yau produces an exciting visual spectacle reportedly spending vast sums of money building an exact replica of the Cross Harbour Tunnel. Filled with explosions, gunfights, and high octane action Yau keeps the tension high by turning the dial right down as Cheung and his gang do their thing with cool, calm military precision disarming everything from C4 to unexploded World War II bombs.  At two hours, Shock Wave is pushing the ideal for an action thriller but largely makes its lengthy running time count despite a number of underdeveloped subplots.

A vehicle for Lau who also takes a producer credit, Shock Wave is defined by his performance as the dashing and heroic member of the bomb disposal squad. Jiang Wu’s mad bomber provides hearty support but is never given much to do other than emphasise his villainy with sneering taunts and occasional acts of cruelty. Cheung’s schoolteacher girlfriend Carmen, played by Song Li, is about as generic as they come seeming only to exist for the classic girlfriend in peril plot device but Song and Lau have good chemistry and the relationship does at least help to up the otherwise absent emotional content. Simply put, Shock Wave is an excuse for the ageing Lau to play the action hero once again and he plays it to the hilt. At times frustratingly formulaic, Shock Wave does manage to maintain the tension until the grippingly explosive finale whilst also paying tribute to those who run towards the crisis rather than away from it in full knowledge of the price they may pay in coming to the defence of ordinary people.


Shock Wave was the closing film of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival and will also be released in UK cinemas from 5th May.

Original trailer (English subtitles)