Hong Kong director Johnnie To almost never makes the same kind of movie twice in a row. The last To film released in the U.S. was 2009’s Vengeance, an arty homage to French crime pictures, and now here’s Life Without Principle, To’s take on the “everything’s connected” genre, in which a cop, a gangster, and a banker are all affected by the current financial crisis. The film hinges on a crime that takes place on the day that the Greek default crashes the market, and the plot circles back repeatedly to catch up with all three of its main characters in the weeks leading up to—and on the day of—the meltdown. The message of Life Without Principle is dark, with even the movie’s “good” characters actively involved in trying to screw over innocent people. To’s style, though, is kinetic, even whimsical, as he shows how the recent hard times have forced even high-living criminals to learn how to live on a budget.
There’s scarcely a minute of Life Without Principle that isn’t obvious, with To directly comparing investing to gambling, and chastising the banks for making money while everyone else is sinking. But the movie is relentless and exciting, and expansive in its critique of the various ways institutions exploit the individual. The banks take their fees; the mob bosses take their cuts; and in one sequence, a dumb but loyal crook busts his ass to raise money for a colleague’s bail, only to have the cops immediately re-arrest the guy and force the crook to start over. At another point, a fabulously rich loan shark consoles the banker, saying, “If money can solve it, it’s not a problem.” But those are far from reassuring words in Life Without Principle—not when that loan shark gets robbed and killed less than 10 minutes later.
To’s work as a producer has been just as eclectic and distinguished as his work as a director. The same year that To directed his Melville-like Vengeance, he produced Soi Cheang’s Accident, an alternately spare and operatic thriller that recalls Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, with a twist of Melville’s Le Samouraï. Louis Koo stars as a meticulous assassin-for-hire who works with a team of accomplices to stage elaborate, Rube Goldberg-like “accidents” that no law-enforcement agency can trace back to Koo’s team, or to his clients. But when one of Koo’s jobs goes awry, he begins to wonder if he’s been set up, and he starts investigating his own life and people, believing that nothing happens by mistake.
Accident starts out as a tense crime picture tracking precision operations, but in the back half of its 88 minutes it becomes more abstract and meditative, as Koo reflects on his own troubled past and tries to seize control of a situation that defies such hubris. Accident fits well with To’s filmography in that it uses the foundations of a genre movie to explore how one man’s worldview is warped by his preoccupation with order. But it doesn’t look or feel like a To film; it’s very much Cheang’s work. That To helped bring such a thoughtful, stylish work of art into existence only bolsters his résumé as one of the most reliable and valuable forces for good in world cinema today.
Key features: Nothing on the Life Without Principle DVD; the Accident DVD and Blu-ray add a package of promotional featurettes, in the original Cantonese.