Taking almost 3 years to make, and finally making its way to our shores, Sparrow is worth every moment of waiting, and again cements Johnnie To's reputation as a living maestro who conjures up magical cinematic moments from the tired Hong Kong crime genre. This time though it's totally sans violence and elaborate gunplay, and what came across was a short film idea that's brimming with class, injected with well placed humour, postcard picturesque framing and the unflappable Simon Yam who can do no wrong as the lead.
Clearly this movie plays up on the sparrow motif, of a bird trapped in a cage, and one from the avian family associated with, as this story goes, ill fortune that will soon befall. While the Hong Kong slang for pickpockets is "sparrow", the figural bird here refers to Kelly Lin's Chung Chun Lei, a mysterious, statuesque beauty who baits our gang into unlocking the cage that's trapping her in a life of misery. The first act plays out like a little mystery, weaving in a deeper introduction of our gang of pickpockets, played by Lam Ka Tung, Kenneth Cheung, Law Wing-cheong and led by their leader Kei (Simon Yam). Thinking they got lucky individually when they each encounter Chun Lei, they soon realize the hard way about who they're dealing with, and realize that they stand a better chance as a group, with unity in strength rather than playing individual lone wolf.
Here's where you'll find the quintessential To movie dripping with camaraderie and brotherhood, written by Chan Kin Chung and Fung Chi Keung. The story unfolds in a rather unconventional manner that leaves you guessing, before it even keels into a mid-section, all the while avoiding big sets and big action sequences. They allow for Yam to play up on his well known photography hobby by working it into the story, and Yam delivers what audiences and fans would have expected, that of a charismatic leader.
Unlike To's previous movies like Exiled and the Election series which were rather heavy in nature and tone, Sparrow, like the bird, is very much light and breezy. It doesn't try to cram too many subplots into its close to 90 minute running time, and provides you a main thread to focus your thoughts on. As mentioned, it is like a short film idea extrapolated effectively into a feature film length, allowing moments of To's signature style of stand-offs to enter the fray, building much needed anticipation, with good natured humour. Some however, might want to draw parallels with Feng Xiaogang's World Without Thieves given its subject matter and its core one-upmanship challenge.
There are two gems in Sparrow that makes its ticket price more than worthwhile. First, the wonderful original music and score by Fred Avril and Xavier Jamaux, whose theme for Sparrow will definitely linger in your mind for quite a while after the end credits roll. With a jazzy feel and a combination of western and eastern musical instruments, the score has a life of its own, and elevates Sparrow to a higher plateau with something memorable to take away, emphasizing the lightness the general tone of the movie takes.
The other gem, will be its fantastically designed major action piece that occurs in the last act. Probably the only "action" you'll see in the movie, it decompresses normal time into slow-motion, in order to exaggerate the lightning quick reflexes all the operatives in the movie possess. The rain, the umbrellas, action designed around them and all done at a single traffic light crossing, remains a cinematic marvel which deserves a second, third helping, and more. Just thinking how it's done technically will already send you into a frenzy, and this likely served undoubtedly as a showpiece for Sparrow.
Sparrow is an elegant movie, which reminds us that while To might have his off-days with movies like Linger, he's back at the top of his game again delivering a movie with deftness in skill, and adding to his already glowing repetoire of movies defining the new wave of crime genre stories that speak volumes of his signature style.
P.S. Richard has sent me this link to Fred Avril and Xavier Jamaux's MySpace website where the 4 tracks from the soundtrack is available for sampling (in full!). Click on the CD front cover below to check it out! Instant earworm I tell you, especially Pickpockets Theme From Sparrow!