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)

Dead or Alive: Final (Takashi Miike, 2002)

dead_or_alive_final_jap_chirashiThe Dead or Alive Trilogy began in a furious, drug fuelled hymn to violence in which a petty vendetta between the opposing forces of good and evil (mingled and bloody) eventually destroyed the entire world. Dead or Alive 2: Birds was an altogether more contemplative affair in which two orphaned boys rediscover each other as jaded hitmen and decide to put their talents to “good” use by donating the hit money to pay for medicinal drugs for impoverished children around the world. Strange and surreal, Birds moved beyond the first film’s absurd ending for an altogether more abstract approach to universe building but Final pushes the idea to its limit in a cyberpunk infused far future tale of rogue robots and sexual dictatorship.

Yokohama, 2346. A new society is being forged, a new social order has been created. All powerful Mayor Wu (Richard Chen) has decreed that the only true love is gay love and made heterosexuality taboo. Births are strictly controlled to maintain population numbers with contraception ruled mandatory. The heterosexual resistance has gone into hiding in a ruined part of the city, living in a free love commune in which the birth of children is a primary goal. Lead by Fong and his first lady Jun, the resistance aims to liberate the people from the yoke of the crazed dictator and create a better, freer world for the as yet unborn children of the future. Teaming up with a rogue “Replicant”, Ryo, (Sho Aikawa) the gang attempt to further their cause by kidnapping the young son of Wu’s chief of police, Honda (Riki Takeuchi), who later discovers some uncomfortable truths about his own existence.

The use of the world “Replicant” is a pointed one and an overt reference to Final’s key text – Blade Runner, though its intentions amount much more to a pastiche than an examination of the existential questions so central to the seminal cyberpunk classic. Online captions state the action is taking place in Yokohama – an industrial harbour town close to Tokyo, but is in reality a thinly disguised Hong Kong with a green tint. Nevertheless, Miike makes the most of rundown industrial complexes now overrun by nature and the symbols of historical hubris. Aside from the flying cars and other CGI touches, the dystopianism is all too real in its sense of economic and social failures which have allowed a man like Wu to run a strange fascist police state even in the absence of the necessary infrastructure.

In keeping with the Hong Kong setting the Yokohama of 2346 is largely Chinese with broad mix of intermingled languages. Once again the nature of family is called into question but this time more through a large scale change in the social order which sees birth strictly controlled through medical and cultural enforcement. The largely Cantonese speaking resistance movement want to create a world where children can be born and then grow up freely, neatly echoing the previous films’ preoccupation with the fates of children as considered by orphans. Aside from their idealism, the Resistance turns out not to be so far removed from the petty gangsters of the previous instalments as they ultimately turn on each other with deadly consequences.

Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi face off once again with Aikawa playing a Rutger Hauer-esque android who proves his “humanity” through his affiliation with children. A “Replicant” from a long forgotten war, Ryo has superpowers which allow him to stop bullets in mid-air or send out sparks of energy but is also at home playing the clown as he brushes his teeth nonchalantly in the middle a fist fight or plays dead to entertain a little boy. Takeuchi’s Honda, by contrast, is the stereotypical gestapo inspired secret police chief whose family life is a hollow one devoid of genuine feeling and maintained solely for professional expectation.

If Miike has been playing Blade Runner all along, his finale jumps ship for Tetsuo: The Iron Man as the trilogy’s leading men relive the totality of their experiences across three different plains of existence before merging into one as a kind of angel of destruction. The cycle of violence has reached its apotheosis as the twin angels are sent to wreak revenge on those who have misused their authority. Shot on high grade video, Final makes the most of its more modest production values but can’t help suffering in comparison to its predecessors. The B-movie opening is a helpful clue to Miike’s intentions as he creates his own kind of sci-fi dystopia inspired by pop culture memories, but even if the overarching themes lack integrity, Final provides the perfect ending for this often frustratingly absurd series, defying rational explanations until the end of time.


Available now in UK from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cold War (寒戰, Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 2012)

cold war

Reworked from a review first published by UK Anime Network in June 2013.


Listen up!  You’re going to have to pay attention to this review because there’s an awful lot going on this film. If there were a prize for most subplots squeezed into 102 minutes there wouldn’t even be room for any other candidates on the nominations list. If you like your HK action thrillers super complicated (if a little on the ridiculous side) and filled with some truly explosive (!) action sequences Cold War (寒戰) is definitely up your street.

Whilst a major explosion rocks a busy public area in Hong Kong, a crazed drunk hurtles through the streets before crashing his car into the central reservation in a quite spectacular manner. Apparently unharmed, he then rants at the traffic police that his uncle is a judge so they can’t touch him – a quick phone call seems to indicate he might be mistaken in his uncle’s feelings towards him but in any case the situation changes dramatically as the police are suddenly ambushed and kidnapped. The kidnappers then attempt to ransom the officers and equipment to the HK police authorities who are already a source of some press interest regarding possible corruption and general incompetence. It is imperative that they regain their men and capture the culprits as quickly as possible to avoid their reputation being even further damaged.

However, there is also considerable friction between the leading players at HQ and some uncertainty over who is favoured to become the new police chief – the young bureaucrat or the grizzled street veteran. This situation is further complicated by the fact that one of the missing patrolmen is the son of current section chief MB Lee (Tony Leung Ka-Fei). His subordinate, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok), feels this makes him unsuitable to lead the current investigation and so seeks to have Lee removed from his post and take over the position himself. The pair also attract the attention of an officer at ICAC who’s convinced one or both of them must have more to do with the case than it seems, meaning each is effectively fighting a war on three fronts – firstly trying to rescue the police officers, then unmasking the perpetrators and finding out what they want with the HK Police force, and finally sorting out who’s up for the top job at police HQ whilst also keeping Internal Affairs off their backs.

No matter which way you put it Cold War is still extremely convoluted and fails to make all of its various plot elements hang together in a coherent way. It’s also unfortunate that the culprit is a little predictable (largely thanks to the actor’s mustache twirling performance) but when the final reveal does come it’s baffling in its pettiness, not to mention the total implausibility of such a complicated plan. Perhaps its unfair to criticise a film like this for having a problematic plot structure, perhaps fans of the action genre don’t look for finely crafted plotting as much as they look thrills and technically impressive action sequences – after all, we can’t all be Infernal Affairs.

It has to be said that Cold War does deliver in the action stakes with some extremely high production values which surpass even the heights of previous HK action films. From the opening car crash to the motorway car chase and explosive finale there are several simply jaw dropping moments throughout. When it comes to the big and brassy set pieces, Cold War is pretty much unrivaled but perhaps lacks the personal, intimate touch of other genre favourites. Tonally it walks a fine line between a sort of quirky humour and slightly absurd feeling where you can’t be sure whether you’re actually watching a comedy or not – some viewers may find all this a little too silly but others may revel in its ironic tone.

Cold War is certainly a flawed film, a little ridiculous but nevertheless enjoyable. It seems as if it also wants to make serious points about the justice system, media and police force but ends up pulling all its punches. If you stop to think about any of the plot, it makes very little sense but if you can let that go and just enjoy the superb action sequences and great performances from the leads Cold War is definitely one of the more impressive action thrillers to come out of HK in recent years.


 Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)