Year of release: 2008
Director: Johnnie To
Action director: Yuen Bun
Producer: Johnnie To
Writers: John Chan, Fung Chi-Keung, Milkyway Creative Team
Cinematography: Cheung Siu-Keung, To Hung-Mo
Editor: David Richardson
Music: Xavier Jamaux, Fred Avril
Stars: Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Gordon Lam, Law Wing-Cheong, Kenneth Cheung, Lo Hoi-Pang, Lam Suet
Rated IIA for mild violence and language
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Shot over the course of several years, Johnnie To's Sparrow is a loving tribute to the films of the 1960's, those of the "French New Wave" in particular. It revolves around a group of pickpockets (or "sparrows" as they are known by in Hong Kong slang) led by Kei (Simon Yam), who each meet up with the beautiful Lei (Kelly Lin), who has a very jealous older beau in the form of Mr. Fu (Lo Hoi-Pang). Fu sends his cronies to beat up the pickpockets, which makes Lei think that they will want revenge.
Lei tries to convince Kei and his team that revenge is best served by stealing a key that Fu wears around his neck that opens a safe, which holds Lei's passport, and thus keeps her from her real love in the Mainland. Kei rejects the offer at first, but after his crew is humilated again, he takes Lei up on her offer. This leads to a climatic duel between Kei and Fu's teams, as they try to steal the passport from each other.
So this doesn't sound like the usual Milkyway/Johnnie To crime movie, and it really isn't. Sparrow is much more about style over substance and the journey being more important than the destination. At the end of the film, none of the characters really feel like they've progressed or changed in any way, which may lead some people to think the proceeding ninety minutes were pointless. But when a film looks and sounds this great, one can give it a lot of leeway.
Taking care to shoot in the older parts of Hong Kong (the few that still exist) and making a conscious effort to dress his characters in clothes that could have very well have stepped off the set of a Godard picture, Johnnie To brings back a different time and different feeling in this film, where the mise-en-scene itself was paramount.
Bolstered by an excellent jazz/lounge soundtrack, Sparrow has a very unique emotion to it, especially compared to many recent Hong Kong movies, which tend to lack any sort of real warmth or humanity to them, where the film-makers hope that if they throw enough CGI or cheesy love ballads sung by the latest pop star at the audience they'll respond by actually paying for a ticket, rather than getting a bootleg.
One particular scene where Kei and Lei simply share a cigarette while driving could be dismissed as throwaway, but if you look deeper, there's a lot to it, most notably how the simplest connections can make a huge difference. Like the films of Wong Kar-Wai. Sparrow is a much an exploration of the unique loneliness of Hong Kong, where one can feel bitterly alone, even while being surrounded by millions of people.
Viewed overall, Sparrow does come off as a bit haphazard and incomplete, probably due to the way it was produced, mostly during down times in Johnnie To's busy schedule. This sort of feeling Sparrow gives the viewer keeps it from reaching the upper echelon of To's best works like The Mission or Exiled.
However, the things the film does right are done well enough that Sparrow becomes a worthy viewing not just for fans of Johnnie To, but for cinephiles from all over the world. Sparrow isn't necessarily going slam you with its' brilliance or make you run to your friends to rave about, but it is a damn fine movie that reminds the viewer that there are at least a few solid film-makers left in Hong Kong.