I continue my obsession with this film and director’s works…
Johnnie To is currently the only ‘action auteur’ working in cinema anywhere in the world. And Sparrow is To’s exercise with the ‘lyrical’. It is essentially a caper-comedy playing out like a musical. And it hearkens back to French capers (To definitely has Melville on his mind in many of the film’s exquisite set-pieces).
A gang of pickpockets led by Simon Yam is beguiled by a mysterious lady on the run (Kelly Lin), and their schemes start to fall apart. As often with To, the conception of the film is slim, but the execution is rich. There are the games and competitions, the symmetries and repetitions, the offhand motifs (here, cigarettes, cigars, and pipes), the geometrical and arithmetical plot mechanics. To has become perhaps the world’s most unpretentiously, unapologetically formalist director.
It’s a procession of twists and set-pieces. There are the funny one-off shots, like the two grifters with symmetrically broken legs and the gang flashing the razor blades they hide in their mouths.
Some sequences are unpredictable miniatures, like the scenes that show how many camera angles you can find in an elevator car, even with a fishtank squeezed in. There’s also a delirious bit with a lipstick-stained cigarette.
Other set-pieces unfold more majestically. There’s a sweeping crane shot of the gang vacuuming up wallets of passersby, and an elaborate theft of a pendant during massage therapy.
The film climaxes with a showdown between two master pickpockets, Kei (the suave Simon Yam) and Mr. Fu (Lo Hoi-pang), and their gangs in the drizzling Hong Kong night.
The objective: Whoever ends up with the passport of the lovely Chun-lei (Kelly Lin) decides her fate. Mr. Fu wants to own her; Kei wants to set her free, much like the bird of the title (“sparrow” is also Cantonese slang for a pickpocket).
The bravura, slow-motion centerpiece sequence would seem more at home in an MGM musical than in a Hong Kong action flick. Armed with umbrellas and well-tailored suits and backed by an infectious musical score, gleaming neon lights and a downpour worthy of Gene Kelly, the pickpockets go “slingin’ in the rain”. You can watch this breathtaking sequence below-
The Sparrow is at once a loving tribute to old Hong Kong island (Simon’s hobby is black-and-white photography), an unpredictable genre piece (or a genre-bender), and an exercise in light-fingered filmmaking. It is also a lesson to the hollywood directors who think that ‘action’ is all about ‘frenzy’ and ‘mayhem’.