Friday, October 25, 2013

LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE (2011) - Johnnie To


What if Pulp Fiction was set during the 2008 financial market collapse? Better yet, what if it was set in China during a fictional 2010 collapse?

That's the gist of this To ensemble drama, which takes a page from other interwoven, state-of-the-nation narratives (Crash, Babel, etc.) and ends up with middling results. Here, the crux around which everything spins is not a glowing briefcase (though a satchel full of yuan does play a prominent role) but the stock market itself. A struggling bank employee tries to pad her failing sales records shilling dicey, high-risk investments. A henpecked cop whose wife wants him to commit to a new apartment juggles a murder case with multiple downsized players. A low-level mob collector with ever-blinking eyes gets cash, loses it, gets it, decides to learn how to play the market.

Though To's narrative is needlessly tricky at times, his message is pretty mundane: Mindless pursuit of money only brings misfortune. Yeah, tell that to the big bank CEOs that made out like bandits a few years ago. The cop story and mafia goon story are relatively disposable, nothing you haven't seen before. Where To nails the panicked tenor of the times is in the corporate office scenes, specifically a very queasy one involving his put-upon bank employee selling a desperate older retiree (see above) a worthless, high-risk stock. Watching her recite the bank's torturous disclaimer while recording the old woman's responses, stopping the tape and starting over from the beginning every time she asks a question and doesn't respond "I understand completely," is like watching a coming train wreck in slow motion. It's enough to make you want to hit the ATM immediately, pull out all you've got, stuff it under the mattress.

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