Life Is Cheap...But Toilet Paper Is Expensive

  • 1990
  • Movie
  • NR
  • Comedy, Thriller

Hong Kong 1990, last frontier in the Wild, Wild East, where life is cheap, but toilet paper is expensive. Arriving from San Francisco's Chinatown to deliver a locked briefcase to the Big Boss (Lo Wai) is the Man with No Name (Spencer Nakasako, who wrote the screenplay and codirects). He is in love with the idea of Hong Kong, but the reality of the place...read more

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Hong Kong 1990, last frontier in the Wild, Wild East, where life is cheap, but toilet paper is expensive. Arriving from San Francisco's Chinatown to deliver a locked briefcase to the Big Boss (Lo Wai) is the Man with No Name (Spencer Nakasako, who wrote the screenplay and codirects). He is

in love with the idea of Hong Kong, but the reality of the place is something else. For one thing, no one seems to take his courier mission as seriously as he expected. First, he has to rendezvous with eccentric Uncle Cheng (Cheng Kwan Min), who seems far more interested in demonstrating his

song-and-dance skills and dispensing hokey advice than in acting as a liaison for our nameless protagonist. Next, No Name makes his way to the Big Boss's office, where the Boss's right hand man (Lam Chung) gives him the runaround. Depending on whom No Name talks to, the Big Boss is either sick,

dying, on vacation, consolidating his power in anticipation of a gang war, or dead. No Name meanders around the city, trying to have a good time and meeting a weird assortment of characters in the process. A drunken taxi driver cheats him and calls him a foreign devil. A man who slaughters ducks

(Chan Kim Wan) philosophizes. Kitty (Cinda Hui), a prostitute, delivers a perplexing monolog about the services she does and doesn't offer. Eventually, the briefcase is stolen by street punks and can't be recovered. No Name befriends the Big Boss's mistress, Money (Cora Miao), and learns she's

having a lesbian affair with the Boss's daughter. When he is threatened and humiliated by the Boss, No Name finally accepts that Hong Kong is a more complex and alien place than he imagined.

Director Wayne Wang gained notoriety with his low-budget feature CHAN IS MISSING, then followed it with SLAMDANCE and EAT A BOWL OF TEA. Asian-American filmmakers are few and far between, and by making and distributing four feature films--three of which explicitly examine aspects of Asian-American

culture--Wang has accomplished something significant. LIFE IS CHEAP is doubly noteworthy because it was released with a self-imposed A (Adult) rating after receiving an X from the MPAA. The film is neither pornographic nor exploitative, and its X rating seemed arbitrary. With the MPAA coming under

increasing criticism for its rating system, Wang's A rating may have played a significant role in prompting the MPAA to institute its less-than-revolutionary NC-17 classification.

LIFE IS CHEAP is, however, a tedious and pretentious film with little to recommend it to the mainstream moviegoer. Character development isn't an issue: the Man with No Name, Money, the Big Boss, and a host of lesser characters are two-dimensional figures meant to recall classic gangster types.

Likewise, the story is of secondary importance. LIFE IS CHEAP strings together a series of incidents, again recalling traditional crime films, but fails to develop them into anything resembling a real plot. This isn't to say that LIFE IS CHEAP is incompetently made; these apparent deficiencies are

part of a deliberate strategy. Indeed, Wang also employs a host of distancing devices to remind the viewer that film is a mannered and artificial medium, just as Hong Kong is a mannered, artificial city. Disjunctive editing, direct address to the camera, voice-over narration, and cryptic visual

inserts regularly bring the narrative to a standstill. There's an academic argument to be made for this exercise: LIFE IS CHEAP is a meditation on racial and cultural stereotypes, filtered through a cinematic prism. But what's the point? It ultimately reveals nothing, and it's certainly no fun to

watch. (Violence, adult situations.)

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  • Released: 1990
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Hong Kong 1990, last frontier in the Wild, Wild East, where life is cheap, but toilet paper is expensive. Arriving from San Francisco's Chinatown to deliver a locked briefcase to the Big Boss (Lo Wai) is the Man with No Name (Spencer Nakasako, who wrote th… (more)

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