The fact that the Hong Kong director Johnnie To averages two films per-year – not to mention the multitude of projects he produces through his company Milky Way Image – shows that he loves making movies. However, his sheer enthusiasm for the medium has never been more evident than in Sparrow, a splendid crime caper that was a genuine labour-of-love, with the sporadic production taking place over three years and To shooting scenes whenever he had some time between other projects. While this fragmented schedule suggests a film that is wilfully experimental and far removed from the efficiently-executed action of The Mission (1999) and Exiled (2006), the cool style of Sparrow and the presence of To regulars in the cast ensures that it offers many of the elements that the director’s ardent following expect from ‘a Johnnie To film’. Sparrow revolves around a team of small-time pickpockets comprised of Kei (Simon Yam), a laid-back leader who likes taking photos with his vintage Rolleiflex when not working, plus associates Bo (Lam Ka-Tung), Sak (Law Wing-Cheong) and Mac (Kenneth Cheung). Each member of the team is approached separately by the mysterious Chung Chun-Lei (Kelly Lin), a beautiful Taiwanese woman who is trapped in a relationship with ageing criminal mastermind Mr. Fu (Lo Hoi Pang) and desperately looking for a way out. Chin-Lei has no trouble capturing the collective attention, and affection, of Kei’s crew, but after deciding to help her, the pickpockets find Mr. Fu to be a formidable opponent.
In an interview with IFC in July 2008, To distinguished Sparrow from his other films by describing it as, ‘a personal and fun project’. Yet he also located it within the development of his narrative model explaining, ‘When I shot The Mission it was about a group of bodyguards. Then I made PTU, which was about a group of cops. So I thought it’d be fun to make another film about teamwork, but this time without guns and blood.’ The characters and events of Sparrow conform to the ‘group hero’ framework that To has been practising and perfecting over the past ten years, but this is a much lighter piece than The Mission or Exiled, with trigger fingers replaced by subtle thievery. Although the narrative is as carefully constructed as anything else the director has done, Sparrow drifts from scene to scene with a laissez-faire attitude, more concerned with cinematic style than the consequences of criminality; the film presents an underworld where wallets are lifted but nobody really gets hurt and a pickpocket like Kei spends his free time taking black-and-white photos of the Hong Kong back streets. To has been compared to Jean-Pierre Melville in terms of his approach to the crime genre, but Sparrow is his most self-conscious homage to French cinema to date with references to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), while the swooning score by Fred Avril and Xavier Jamaux recalls some of the best European soundtracks of the 1960s.
This is not to say that Sparrow is simply an exercise in cine-literary that enables the director to tick-off those names on his tribute list. The film is more hybrid than homage, with set-pieces that are familiar from To’s previous work being imbued with the breezy spirit of his European reference points. This is best exemplified by the beautifully choreographed conclusion which takes place at a rain-soaked street crossing and finds Kei’s crew taking on Mr. Fu and his henchman to see which team can maintain possession of Chin-Lei’s passport; the seriousness of the situation (Chin-Lei will be doomed to a life with Mr. Fu if Kei’s crew loses) surrenders to the simple pleasure of watching the rival teams in motion, outmanoeuvring each other with a series of delicate yet deliberate steps. The director’s recurring ruminations on the modern history of Hong Kong are filtered through the playfulness; Sparrow is set in the present but evokes the recent past, with To largely avoiding the commercial centre in favour of less modernised areas, Kei’s crew riding around on bicycles and Chin-Lei positioned as an exotic object yearning for freedom, thereby representing pre-handover Hong Kong. To is firmly established as an ‘auteur of action’, which means that it is sometimes difficult to separate the personal from the professional when analysing his prolific output. Knowledge of the protracted production process of Sparrow encourages deeper reading that may not be rewarded, but it should be stated that such cinematic sleight-of-hand has rarely been this beguiling.