Hong Kong's Johnnie To turns lens from gangsters to bankers
Wildly prolific as both a director and producer, Hong Kong-based Johnnie To is best known for crackling, gripping gangster films set amid the bustle of contemporary Hong Kong — think “The Mission,” “PTU,” “Election” “Exiled” and “Mad Detective.” His film “Life Without Principle,” newly available on DVD and video on demand, is a thriller of real-world problems set against the multifaceted fallout of a financial collapse.
In this new movie, a bank officer (Denise Ho) must sell financial products to people who likely can’t afford them and most certainly do not understand them. A mid-level hustler (Lau Ching Wan) constantly plays both ends against the middle. A cop (Ritchie Yen) struggles to pull together a loan for a new apartment for his family. Their worlds intersect over money. The double-meaning of the title is indicative of how the film places some of the concerns of To’s gangster films — how to live an honorable life in a dishonorable world — within the confines of a more conventional workaday reality.
To sat down for a few minutes with 24 Frames during last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, which has shown many of his films and been a prime spot for bringing his work to Western audiences. “Principle” had its North American premiere at the fest just a few days after its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
What made you to want to use an economic crisis as the backdrop for a film?
I think it's two things. One is myself. After I finished “Vengeance” [To’s 2009 thriller starring French actor Johnny Hallyday], I realized I’d been thinking for 15 years about action, police, gangsters and killers. It was maybe time to change. So I wanted my next movie not to have any gunfight scenes. Maybe give me a few years to let me think about how to make action again.
This was the first thing in my mind. Second is I wanted to find a subject to talk about real issues, and certainly 2008, the economic crisis, it made many people crazy, very sad. Some poor man becomes rich man, rich man becomes a poor man — the world suddenly changed for a lot of people. In Hong Kong, property values were very high and the stock market had been crazy high. Now people who really need it can’t find financing to get a mortgage. It’s horrible. And this story is based on the timing of the economic crisis; I wanted to be able to talk about how everyone has to work so hard to try to make a stable life, needing more and more money. What should be ordinary, saving to retire, is really difficult. And the professionals, the banks, they calculate how to take your money. And it’s legal.
The film draws connections between the gangsters and the bankers. So do you still see this as a crime film?
No, it’s not a crime film. If there is something I can compare to the gangsters, well, what does this mean, gangsters? That means they have a good organization, from the top on down. And banks, they know about the law, they have knowledge of their world.
I really like when a character says how it’s getting harder and harder to make a living as a gangster.
Of course, it’s easy to be a gangster, but as the world changes you have to change. In Hong Kong, more and more gangsters are going to Macau because of the casinos. They can do business there. I can say the whole movie is talking about how we all have to change. When everything changes, we must change with it. But in the end you have to stop to think about what you’re doing. Everyone likes dessert, and when you taste it, you want more.
The film seems based on building tension but without the release of violence. As a viewer, you keep waiting for the shootout that never comes.
Yes, that’s the change. I will see this movie again in a year or two. I’m still not really satisfied with the movie, because I can tell I still have something else inside me. I carry the movie from before. I cannot do it completely realistic and without too much style. From the beginning I wanted it to be low-key, and the movie is still too much. But this time I put in many, many dialogue scenes, and there is one policeman in the movie, one gangster. Next time I’ll try for none at all. Then I’ll see for myself: Who are you, Johnnie To?
—- Mark Olsen