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There are many facets to the brilliantly diverse career of director Johnnie To, but within these aspects there are many similarities that adhere to auteur sensibilities. He does not direct the same film over and over again but he has many thematic overtures and plot devices that will consistently turn up -- not always in the same film though. Sparrow is no different in that respect though it feels unique in To's oeuvre. Like PTU it was a personal project that took over three years to make. He would film a scene whenever he had the money and/or whenever he could get the principal actors to work when they were not busy with other projects. Its closest equivalent would be Yesterday Once More which deals with thieves and has a few similar characters and situations. While Yesterday Once More was influenced by the American crime caper especially the original The Thomas Crown Affair, this film was created to invoke a feeling of French New Wave cinema (in interviews To states specifically Umbrellas of Cherbourg as an influence). It is one of To's most lighthearted movies (not counting some of the silly romantic comedies he has co-directed) and one of his better directed efforts.
In Cantonese-slang the term Sparrow means a pickpocket. It is also a bird that one day decides to show up in Kei's (Simon Yam: The Mission, PTU) apartment while he was sewing. The pickpocket is Kei who is in charge of three other semi-competent thieves (this is the most common aspect of To's movies the team and its dynamics). As soon as the sparrow enters his life and he debates the meaning of this with his partners a women enters their life. Chung Chun Lei (Kelly Lin: Fulltime Killer, Mad Detective) a mainland expatriate (whom is similar to Mona in Throw Down) bewitches all four separately and indirectly gets them beat up by associates of her old rich patron who controls her life and has every moment of her monitored. Mr. Fu Kim Tong (Lo Hoi-pan: PTU, Throw Down) is a cigar-smoking leader of a nefarious business and was once a great pickpocket himself. He has Chung's passport and even though he offers his fortune after he dies she does not want to be caged and wants her freedom.
It is eventually their pity on Chung and not her initial coquettishness that wins three of the four to help her get her freedom. Kei is the odd man out until a specific encounter with Mr. Fu threatens his manhood, livelihood and sense-of-honor.
While this film may be a bit laconic for some I found Sparrow to be one of my favorite films of 2008. It is beautifully shot, has an interesting characterization for Simon Yam and there are several sagacious scenes. One of these moments is where all four men ride the same bike (you have to see this, it is filmed quite beautifully) which symbolizes not only the team effort for this film (one of the most common themes in all of Johnnie To's oeuvre) but the actors themselves who destroyed several bikes while making this scene and spent so much time learning to balance while riding. Pickpocketing works better as a team effort (and you can certainly rake in more money), but you have to be in sync as well as completely trust your companions. Another great scene shows them put there skills together much like a similar scene in Robert Bresson's Pickpocket. One would expect there would be much more in common between these two films because of the subject matter but the underlying themes (with the exception of redemption) are quite different.
The funniest scene involves all four pickpockets trying to corner Chun Lei so they can get a better explanation on why they got beat-up because of her. They get stuck in an elevator (well three of them do; how they lose one of them is part of the hilarity) with two movers who are carrying a large glass case. The two movers make the mistake of interfering with three much more dangerous characters.
The best scene in the movie is the edifying ending involving a pickpocket duel amongst the rain and umbrellas. It is filmed (the filming alone on this scene took over two weeks) with such beautiful editing and splendorous slow-motion grandeur that you realize this Hong Kong and French hybrid works astoundingly well. There are several subtle moments to it so it helps to view it a few times.
While the film is not perfect and portrays several of the characters as more ornamental then full-bodied humans, I found Sparrow to be a fun film. It is full of jaunty experiences with superficial references to various French film auteurs from Jean-Pierre Melville (of course the birdcages in this film also make you think of John Woo who is also a Melville fan) to Francis Truffaut. But To does this with a mixture of themes and situations that are important to him from team spirit, rooftop encounters, wayward souls and Lam Suet. Johnnie To uses the splendid older Hong Kong locations to great effect (one of the main reasons he made this film was to document a lot of the city) this helps with the feeling of timelessness in the movie. This is especially evident when much of the stills through the credits show the buildings. Plus the music which is another hybrid of Eastern and Western influences by Xavier Jamaux and Fred Avril (whom To worked with in Mad Detective) which evokes a feeling of quirky nostalgia for a time and place that has never existed. That is one of the many reasons I love this film.
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