Johnnie To's film Life Without Principle has elements of crime drama and police procedural, but really it's a human story, about the interconnectedness of life and the importance of relationships. It's ponderously slow at times, and a bit confusing, but ultimately worth the effort.
The film follows three people who don't know each other: Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren), whose financial problems and indecisiveness are causing problems with his wife, Panther (Ching Wan Lau), a twitchy criminal who holds the ideals of brotherhood with his fellow gangsters very seriously, and Teresa (Denise Ho), a financial services officer who is underperforming at work, and desperately needs to make some sales to save her job.
While they don't know each other, they are connected nevertheless. Cheung's wife Connie (Myolie Wu) sees Teresa at the bank about a loan in order to buy an apartment that she desperately wants, but that Cheung won't commit to. Cheung arrests Panther's friend Brother Wah (Siu-Fai Cheung), which sends Panther on a quest to get money to bail him out. One of Teresa's best clients is loan shark Yuen (Hoi-Pang Lo), who often withdraws very large sums of money for his business, and who Panther's friend Lung (Philip Keung) goes to when he ends up several million dollars short after a bad business deal.
Each of the three is put to some kind of moral dilemma. Teresa wrestles with selling financial instruments to the elderly who don't really understand the massive risk, in order to keep her job. Panther does his best to fulfill what he sees as his obligations to his brothers, even going so far as planning to rob the loan shark. Cheung is afraid of the financial risk of buying the apartment, and taking in his infant sister that he'd never heard of, and his indecision is fraying his relationship with his wife. All three must make a decision, and decide what is important in their life. They don't come off unilaterally as heroes or perfect people. They have all the failings and moral ambiguity of real human beings, and this is why the audience connects with them and remains drawn to the narrative.
This is not to say that Life Without Principle is a perfect film. Though the characters are compelling and realistic, the story drags significantly at times. We have to sit through seemingly endless descriptions of financial instruments, or the efforts of Panther to secure funds from his criminal brothers for bail money. Admittedly, the slowest portions are those focused on Teresa and her work at the bank, particularly her efforts to sell a risky portfolio to an elderly client. It's clear what To is doing with these sequences, but it feels interminable, and perhaps that's part of the point. The film is also hampered by an unorthodox, out of sequence structure, that is unclear until late in the film. At one point, we see a character killed, and then shortly afterward see that they are alive, and are left wondering for a time if perhaps it wasn't just someone who looked like them that was killed. At the end, it all becomes clear, but there is a time in the film that is quite confusing.
Still, there is a lot to commend the film as well. The characterizations are sharp and well developed. The performances are great, particularly Ching Wan Lau as the nervous and affable Panther, with his tics and twitches and ready smile. But everyone does really well, and there's nary a false note sounded, from the lowliest walk on part to the leads. The film has heart and humor and some insightful things to say about the modern world. Recommended.