By Mike Collett-White
VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - The world's stock markets are a casino in which everyone wants to, or has to, gamble in Johnnie To's latest drama "Life Without Principle" set amidst the recent financial turmoil.
The movie, one of 23 in the main competition at the Venice film festival, is the only one to deal with the hot topic, albeit with a big dose of comedy.
Life Without Principle follows three main characters who, for different reasons, get hit by a stock market crash in Hong Kong prompted by worries over Greek debt on the other side of the world.
The whole city, it seems, is playing the market like roulette, basing decisions on what they see as sound economic analysis, technical charts or just plain guesswork.
A hard-working cop, played by Richie Ren, finds financial pressures mounting as he and his wife put down a deposit on a new apartment and then risk losing their investment.
Panther (Ching Wan Lau) is a low-level mobster who robs a loan shark and bets the lot on stocks rising in a bid to raise cash to post his boss's bail.
Finally a bank employee (Denise Ho) becomes ever more aggressive in selling risky financial products to ordinary people in order to meet her targets and keep her job.
When a low-life loan shark, one of the few people who benefit from tumbling stocks, leaves behind five million Hong Kong dollars and is then killed in a robbery, she must decide whether to steal the money or give it back to the bank.
Plotlines interweave in a fast-paced, often humorous examination of greed and panic which, although set in Hong Kong, will resonate with audiences around the world.
Everyone from an old woman with life savings to mafia bosses in their Lamborghinis is happy as long as the markets are marching up.
When they start to turn south, however, lives quickly fall apart.
"Over the past two or three years people have changed their principles, they are interested only in money," To told reporters in Venice after a press screening.
"Society has changed as a whole in this way and this made me take note of the greed of mankind," he added, speaking through a translator.
"Life without principle can be something very, very sad wherever you are," said the producer and film maker best known in the West for action and crime movies.
"For the people of Hong Kong, they are trying to earn as much money as possible because the cost of living is high.
"But if one day we find it difficult to find the money we need to carry on living, what can we do? Life is not about money alone."
The last competition film to screen ahead of the awards ceremony on Saturday was "Texas Killing Fields," a thriller about a pair of detectives hunting down a serial killer of young women in a small Texan town.
Directed by Ami Canaan Mann and produced by her father Michael Mann, the film is inspired by the true story of a string of mostly unresolved murders that took place in the marshlands around Texas City, south of Houston.
Sam Worthington and up-and-coming actress Jessica Chastain are in the cast of the film, for which Michael Mann had originally approached Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle.
(Additional Reporting by Silvia Aloisi, editing by Paul Casc isato)