Directed by: Johnnie To
Written by: Chan Kin-Chung, Fung Chih-Chiang, Milkyway Creative Team
Country: Hong Kong
Starring: Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Lam Ka-Tung, Law Wing-Cheong, Kenneth Cheung
Shot during a three-year period between other Milkyway Image projects, Johnny To’s newest film, compared to his previous ones, is still a heady brew of male camaraderie, extravagant cinematography, and aesthetic violence, albeit with a decidedly different mixture of spices to top it all off. Defying easy categorization, Sparrow could be described as a quirky-romantic-action-crime-comedy. The always suave Simon Yam heads a motley team of “sparrows” (slang for “pickpockets”) who become embroiled with a beautiful young woman (Lin) out to seduce them into committing a crime for her. The sparrows are professionals like any other in To’s filmography, proud but knockabout, yet much less hardened criminals than skilled craftsmen plying their trade just enough to get by. Yam in particular gives a likeable, flowing performance, perfectly suited to the equally fluid, formidable direction by Johnnie To.
Sparrow is perhaps the perfect blend of To’s earnest crime pictures and frothy romances. With his absolutely mastery of the frame and editing, he narrows his focus down from the nature of crime and thievery to the literal mechanics of a pickpocket; hands, jackets, and wallets take the place of guns, bullets, and bodies so prominent in Election or Exiled, to name two of his recent genre works, except the stakes aren’t so high and intimacy trumps, or at least equals, bravado. The throwaway narrative leaves To a lot of room to indulge his formal chops, staging some hilarious and astonishing manipulations of space everywhere from a sidewalk to a rooftop to an elevator, akin to the various solutions to the dilemma of visualizing multiple personalities in Mad Detective. The final kicker, and perhaps one of the most satisfying sequences in all of this genre master’s films, is what I like to call “Pickpocketin’ in the Rain:” a dexterous, slow-motion contest of pickpocketing acumen within crowds of umbrella-wielding suited pedestrians moving along a crosswalk in the pouring rain. The near abstractness of water droplets, fingers, eye lines, and black and white suits converging is both comfortingly prosaic and acutely pleasurable, epitomizing To’s genius in mashing genre familiarity with continually inventive visual forms.