Life Without Principle

Unless I see something in the next 15 months that impresses me more, I’m prepared to name Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle (2011) as my favorite film of the decade. Principle blends comedy, melodrama, suspense, and a Minnelliesque sense of movement and color to contemplate the ethical quandaries of life in the speculation economy. It’s one of the rare films that succeeds as both an entertainment and a moral provocation. Writing about it in 2012, I likened Principle to the masterpieces of John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, and like those directors, To came to mastery through deepening themes and experimenting with form within the realm of accessible genre filmmaking.

The ten-film To retrospective playing Tuesdays at Doc Films from October 1 to December 4 features revival screenings of Principle and two more of the Hong Kong auteur’s greatest works, Breaking News (2004) and Vengeance (2009). The remaining seven titles showcase the director’s tremendous range. Not only will Doc present the sort of action films on which To built his international reputation (A Hero Never Dies, The Mission); it’ll also feature some of his comedies (Help!!!, Fat Choi Spirit) and one of his romances (Needing You . . .), which are hugely popular in Hong Kong but rarely receive attention abroad. As an added bonus, nine of the titles are slated to be screened from 35-millimeter prints.

To may be one of the most important Hong Kong filmmakers, but he’s also one of the last people upholding the tradition of classical Hollywood filmmaking. In 1996 he cofounded the production company Milkyway Image; the studio has developed a stable of talented writers, actors, and technicians committed to ensuring a high level of quality across a variety of output. The pleasures of a Milkyway production are comparable to those of an MGM film of the 1940s or ’50s—even when the story isn’t great, one can still get lost in the richness of the craftsmanship and creative collaborations. The work of To and company is a testament to the joys of moviegoing; I’m excited to experience so much of it on a big screen.   v