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)

Sisterhood (骨妹, Tracy Choi, 2016)

Middle-aged regret and irreconcilable loss bring one lonely woman home from exile in Tracy Choi’s melancholy exploration of impossible love and illusionary futures, Sisterhood (骨妹, Gwat Mui). Moving from present day Taiwan to pre-handover Macao, Choi’s emotionally complex drama is both a chronicle of changing times and not as the collection of women at its centre attempt to protect themselves from a relentlessly patriarchal society through female solidarity only to see their fragile bonds disrupted by a political sea change. 

Choi opens in the present day with a now almost middle-aged Sei (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) visiting a doctor’s surgery after fracturing her wrist, apparently the result of an all too common drunken accident. Now living in Taiwan and running a small inn with her devoted husband who is perhaps overly supportive in his willingness to enable her drinking on the grounds that it keeps her “happy”, Sei appears to be quietly miserable. Spotting an ad in a newspaper telling her that an old friend, Ling (Jennifer Yu Heung-ying), with whom she’d long since lost touch has passed away jolts her out of her inertia, journeying back into the past as she finds herself travelling to a very different Macao to that of her youth in which the young Sei (Fish Liew) worked as a masseuse and was part of a quartet of close friends trying to survive the indignities of life on the margins through shared sisterhood. 

Sei’s “breakup” with Ling occurs on the very day that Macao returns to China, her friends seemingly thereafter scattering as she finds herself agreeing to a rebound marriage with an earnest Taiwanese customer who abruptly proposed on their very first date. We hear Ling tell her that she has found a man willing to marry her, but that her son Lok is an obstacle and so she plans to send him to the Mainland, cruelly ignoring the part that Sei has been playing in their lives as a co-parent even if, as we discover, the relationship between the two women goes largely undefined. Having moved in with her after losing her apartment, it is Sei who is there to support Ling when she becomes unexpectedly pregnant by a casual boyfriend/customer, eventually convincing her to have the baby by assuring her they’ll raise it together, but despite their pledges to stay together always the spectre of heteronormativity hangs over them constantly. Mocked in the street by a couple of old busybodies, Ling reacts with extreme sensitivity to the word “lesbian”, quickly moving her hand away from Sei’s as they push their son together in his pushchair lest conclusions be drawn from their closeness. Sei, by contrast, pays it no mind though this could easily be because she knows it isn’t “true”, at least in any concrete sense. The two women are evidently not lovers, if perhaps in love, but so impossible does their relationship seem to them that they lack the ability to recognise it let alone envisage its future. 

It is perhaps this degree of internalised shame that leads Ling to push Sei away, believing either that she will be “happier” in a heterosexual relationship, that she is in some way preventing her from living a more socially conventional life, or just afraid of her own feelings in assuming they are not returned and that she does not in any case deserve romantic happiness. The irony being that Sei’s married life seems to have been one of miserable emptiness and regret, stubbornly attempting to make the conventional work without quite knowing what the cause of her pain really is. On her return to post-handover Macao, she’s confronted with the failed futures of all her friends, one now a young grandmother owning her own business but forced to work herself to the bone to provide for her family, and the other near destitute and alone, floundering in the casino paradise of the upscale modern city. Meeting the now grown Lok she confides that she’s happy for him because lost as he is he has choices they never had in their young lives in which they did anything they could just to survive. 

The female solidarity which had enabled the four women to navigate a world in which they were encouraged to believe that their only option was to gain access to male economic power has thoroughly broken down in the post-handover society, and so Sei’s return is also a healing in helping to repair the broken bonds between her friends and restore the “sisterhood” which had been ruptured by the passing of an era. She can no longer repair her relationship with Ling and is perhaps left with a sense of longing and regret for an irretrievable past, but in coming to an understanding of her youth, her own feelings and desires, she gains the self-knowledge denied to her during her 15 years of exile, finally in a sense returning “home”. 


Sisterhood is available to stream in the UK 23rd October to 5th November via Barbican on Demand as part of this year’s Queer East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Office (華麗上班族, Johnnie To, 2015)

Johnnie To office poster 1Can love and capitalism walk hand in hand? Perhaps not, at least in Johnnie To’s beautifully choreographed musical exploration of high stakes finance and moral bankruptcy, Office (華麗上班族). Adapted from Sylvia Chang’s stage play, Office situates itself on the edge of an abyss as the 2008 financial crisis edges its way towards Hong Kong while enterprising businessmen try to figure out how to ride the waves even if that means standing on someone else’s shoulders as they sink deeper into the moral morass that is the modern economy.

Top Hong Kong trading company Jones & Sunn is about to go public. CEO Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang) has long been running the show for her boss and lover, Chairman Ho (Chow Yun-fat), who has promised her a sizeable dividend once the floatation is complete. Meanwhile, two new interns have just joined the company, eager to make their marks in the corporate world and ensure they survive their three month probation. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Li Xiang (Wang Ziyi), “Lee like Ang Lee, Xiang like dream”, just wants to work hard and get rich so he can live a nice life, while his colleague Kat Ho (Lang Yueting) has just returned from studying economics at Harvard and appears to be slumming it in a lowly internship while (unconvincingly) pretending to be from a humble background. The funny thing is no one seems to pick up on the fact Kat has the same surname as the company’s owner, or they might have figured out she’s the boss’ daughter either forced to learn the trade from the ground up or working as a spy among the regular employees. In any case, Li Xiang is smitten.

Love, it seems, is the destabilising force at the centre of this great machine. CEO Chang, an all powerful woman in a male dominated industry, rules the office with a will of iron but allows herself to be manipulated by Ho with whom she has been having a longstanding affair. Ho has a wife in a coma, but neither of the pair object to the office gossip which brands Chang as “Mrs. Ho”, seeing it only as cutely romantic rather than a slight on Chang’s very real authority. Meanwhile, lonely in Ho’s lack of serious commitment, Chang has also been sleeping with her favourite underling, the feted David (Eason Chan), who in turn is getting fed up with feeling like a spare part who’s hit the peak of his career. Unbeknownst to Chang who may have taken her all-seeing eye off the ball, David has started playing with fire in gambling with company money and losing badly. As a counter measure, he’s begun romancing lovelorn accountant Sophie (Tang Wei), who unlike Chang, is still facing the work/home dilemma in that her fiancé back on the Mainland is pressuring her to give up work and settle down.

Li Xiang is very keen on following his “dreams” which in the beginning are charmingly naive – he wants a nice life for himself and the ability to pay off his friends’ debts (seemingly for entirely altruistic reasons, not as an excuse to show off). Slowly, however, his new world begins to corrupt him. He’s irritated that he’s not allowed to ride the executive elevator and badly wants in, but is still green enough to chivalrously cover up for Kat’s mistakes, while Kat is so clueless that she forgets turning up to work in designer outfits and in a chauffeur driven car is going to blow her cover. Li Xiang sees through her, but only to the nice part – it never really occurs to him she’s a mole or planning to betray Mrs. Chang who is kind of her step-mother. Chang isn’t blind to office politics. She sees Li Xiang take the blame for Kat and even likes him for it. She also likes his “originality” and plans to take him under her wing for her new expansionist plans but finds herself once again blindsided by all the difficult romantic drama bubbling under the surface of coldhearted capitalism.

David and Sophie decide they want to start a “love revolution”, but David has already gone to a dark place and his romantic confession is immediately followed by a manipulative request to get Sophie to help him with his nefarious plans. Meanwhile, Li Xiang’s gradual descent into corporatism begins to sour Kat who’d taken a liking to him because he wasn’t like everyone else. They didn’t mean to do it, but they’ve betrayed themselves and others in their relentless pursuit of conventional success. Drunken salarymen at a local bar ask themselves what all of this is for when their kids don’t recognise them and they barely recognise themselves, yet no one quite has the guts to get off the corporate train and go do something else.

In To’s elaborate set design, no one is ever truly able to leave the office. An elegant construction of neon and steel, the abstract theatricality of To’s artificial universe only underlines its essential meaninglessness – something the Office’s denizens eventually come to understand whether they choose to stay or not. As Chang quips, smart guys control money and stupid ones are controlled by it, but she herself is wise enough to know when the game is up and it’s time to move on. Did love destroy the system or did the system destroy love? Beautiful melodies telling us terrible things, To’s anti-capitalist musical crushes its earnest heroes under the wheel of progress while they dance blithely all the way over the edge.


Office screens in Chicago on Oct. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)