A movie review is not familiar territory for AsianInvestor.net, but then again, how often do you see a film that grapples intelligently with the profession of asset management in Asia?
There was of course 2010’s "Inside Job", a documentary that linked financial greed, egotism and illicit behaviour on Wall Street. But in the realm of storytelling, Hollywood has been largely silent on the crisis gripping the West.
"Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps?" Puh-leeze. That movie… and I’m going to use a highly technical term here… sucked. Completely failed to capture the zeitgeist, and substituted silly motorbike races, montages of computer screens, a cameo by Maria Bartiromo and a lame-ass love story for anything like the reality of Wall Street or the credit crunch.
The best feature movie so far about the crisis comes, perhaps surprisingly, from a Hong Kong director better known for stylish, often violent triad thrillers. "Life Without Principle" is out in Hong Kong theatres. It is directed by Johnny To, a veteran known for popular (but a little cheesy) shoot-’em-ups like "Expect the Unexpected", "The Mission" and "PTU", as well as the complex, rich and disturbing epic, "Election".
But To turns out to have a deft touch when it comes to unravelling a true crime. His latest movie weaves the story of a wealth manager at a local bank, an old lady looking for double-digit returns, a loan shark, an illegal boiler room, a cop’s wife trying to afford a nice flat and – this being Johnny To – a coterie of gaudy triad bosses and flunkies.
This is a must-see movie for anyone involved in the flogging of investment products in Hong Kong. Denise Ho, a Cantopop star who looks good in a corporate Armani suit and heels, plays a bank teller who is pressured into selling an old lady a Bric fund that she clearly is unsuited for.
The film takes us through the painful process that a fund sale requires, including the recording of a questionnaire in which the old lady, played by TVB veteran Soh Hang-suen, who is portrayed sympathetically, a victim complicit in her own undoing. She is just as greedy for high returns as the loan shark who laughs at Ho’s offer to put his HK$80 million on deposit into investment funds for a 2% fee – and just as impatient as a policeman’s wife who takes a dangerous bet by seeking a loan for a down-payment on a new apartment in Sheung Wan.
The film – which sometimes seems to be more about 'life without principal' – borrows its title from an essay by David Thoreau published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863, which the philosopher had originally titled What Shall it Profit. In it, he urged his listeners to “consider the way in which we spend our lives”.
To, with the financial crisis as a backdrop, uses a market crash and the mayhem it causes on all of these bets to cast a cynical eye on financial products and deals. In his world there is little difference between a fictional bank’s ruthless purveying of funds, customers’ greed for high returns, a housewife who obsesses on owning a flat, a triad’s attempt at charting the Hang Seng Index and a fundamental analysis of a company’s stock.
What is investing? asks a rich, sleek triad boss to the hapless servant who tried to swindle him. It is predicting the future. Get it right, you win; get it wrong, you get stabbed in the chest. Capital pricing models, behavioural finance, and coteries of well-heeled financial analysts are, in total, as relevant as the superstitious bets placed on the Macau tables.
As the market tumbles amid background screams of “I kill you later” – the wry play on the Hong Konger’s accented rendition of “accumulator” – To makes the case that in the real world, commission fees and leverage can be as deadly as a gangster with a gun.