Tuesday, October 14th, 2008
Since it’s fresh in my mind and because I’m ready to get down to writing after enjoying Breakfast Special C at the local diner, here are some thoughts on Johnnie To’s latest opus SPARROW:
Director: Johnnie To Kei-Fung
Cast: Simon Yam Tat-Wah (Kei), Kelly Lin (Chung Chun-Lei), Gordon Lam Ka-Tung (Bo), Lo Hoi-Pang (Mr. Fu), Law Wing-Cheong (Sak), Kenneth Cheung (Mak)
Synopsis: They are known as the “sparrows” or Hong Kong’s street slang for “pickpockets”. They work in group, lifting wallets from unsuspected tourists, until one day an irresistible woman of unknown origin appears before them, requesting the gang to steal a key for her. The set-up begins to unravel itself when the mission completes. The pickpockets realise that this exotic beauty has been slowly leading them onto a path of no return.
PRE-CONCEIVED NOTIONS: It’s been a long wait for this movie. I remember translating an article about SPARROW way back in 2004. Johnnie To was at the Cannes Film Festival for a screening of BREAKING NEWS and he revealed that he was developing a film about pickpockets that would star Simon Yam Tat-Wah. What else was happening in the entertainment circle around that time? Edison Chen was getting mocked by teenagers on the streets and Stephy Tang Lai-Yan had yet to break out of the Cookies/Mini-Cookies jar. So yeah, it’s been a long wait.
I’m hoping that the long, anticipation-filled wait hasn’t ratcheted up my expectations too high. I’ve purposefully avoided reading reviews so I have no idea about the critical reception. It’s Johnnie To, hero of Hong Kong Cinema, so I expect, at the very least, a decent film. I’m also pre-disposed to liking the story of the film because I’m a fan of the “honourable criminals” genre — with the legend of Robin Hood, the BBC show HUSTLE, the classic Hitchcock film TO CATCH A THIEF and Chinese films like RUNNING OUT OF TIME and A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES being favourites. I like this genre so much, sitting through the atrocious HUDSON HAWK didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for it.
I’m also hoping that SPARROW gives Simon Yam Tat-Wah a role with which he can win the HKFA Best Actor award next year. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Now that Lau Ching-Wan has won one, Simon Yam is next in line on the “veteran actor who deserves to win a HKFA Best Actor award” list.
AFTER THE MOVIE: This is probably a weird thing to say about a movie but I found SPARROW to be an exhausting experience. I think it had to do with spending most of the film swinging on an emotional pendulum between frustration and elation. Parts of SPARROW — with its luxurious composition and jaunty soundtrack — were fabulous. Other parts were so opaque, it even tried the patience and goodwill of a stalwart Johnnie To fan like me. I’ve watched the climactic pick-pocketing scene multiple times, zaprudered it with the 1/16th slow motion function, yet I still can’t figure out the chain of possession for the passport that Kei (Simon Yam’s character) and Mr. Fu (the villian) were fighting over. Stultifying sections notwithstanding, SPARROW is ultimately a worthwhile film experience. It’s a feast for the eyes and, in the end, most viewers will feel satisfied by the time the credits start to roll. I caught myself smiling as the film closed with the sight of Kei and his cohorts riding off into the sunset on Kei’s bicycle. Put it this way, it’s not a 2046 situation where most viewers were likely left dazed, confused and alienated by a director who seemingly went out of his way to be inscrutable.
Whether or not you like SPARROW will depend largely on what you look for in a film. If you fancy yourself a film connoisseur who appreciates great technical filmmaking, then you will definitely get a kick out of the exquisite art direction, lush visuals and fine acting performances. If you are more of a “meat and potatoes” viewer with decidedly conventional tastes then the challenging yet thin narrative of the movie will probably turn you off. Think of SPARROW as fine dining. It has excellent presentation and a cornucopia of flavours that will excite your taste buds. However, the portion is small and it isn’t very filling. If you can be satisfied with just the simple experience, then SPARROW is for you. If you are looking for something that will leave you feeling wholly satisfied, SPARROW probably won’t fill the bill.
- There isn’t anything particularly outstanding about Simon Yam’s performance as the prototypical “charismatic criminal” so it’s unlikely he’ll be winning any Best Actor awards off of SPARROW.
- With the exception of his final scene in the limousine, I really enjoyed veteran actor/TV personality Lo Hoi-Pang’s performance as Mr. Fu. One of the small joys often found in Johnnie To’s movies is how he casts minor, veteran celebrities in roles be it Fiona Leung Ngai-Ling in NEEDING YOU, Jackie Lui Jung-Yin in THE MISSION, Ellen Chan Nga-Lun in EXILED, Wong Tin-Lam in THE LONGEST NITE or, my favourite bit of nostalgic casting, 1970s star Wong Chung in ELECTION.
- While watching the many glorious shots of Kelly Lin in the film, I couldn’t help thinking that Lin has come a long, long way from when Wong Jing brought her into the Hong Kong entertainment circle in 1999 for THE CONMEN IN VEGAS. Searching the archives of my old website, the first time Kelly Lin pops up is in a report from February 6th, 1999. Lin was on location in Las Vegas shooting the formulaic Wong Jing gambling/action/comedy flick. Billed as the “new Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching“, she was introduced to the media along with fellow Wong Jing recruits Jewel Li Fei and Meggie Yu Fang (Yuk Fong). Lin was touted as the entertainment circle’s next hot sexpot star, Li was going to be the next female action star while Yu was going to charm audiences with her sexy “jade-babe” (玉女; Chinese equivalent of “girl next door”) appeal. Based on that ignominious introduction to the HK viewing public, most would have pegged Lin to have a career trajectory where she would flame out after a short run as a minor “it girl”. Yet, here she is almost ten years later starring in what is essentially a Johnnie To art film and with a HKFA Best Supporting Actress nomination in the bag for her work in AFTER THIS OUR EXILE. Who would have guessed?
This also shows how hard it is to become a star in the entertainment circle. Of Lin, Li and Yu only Lin has gone on to a major career. Since 1999, Jewel Li has appeared in a handful of action movies and is currently playing Tsang Yau (one of Wai Siu-Bo’s wives) in a Mainland TV adaptation of THE DUKE OF MT. DEER. As for Yu, she parlayed the attention she got from THE CONMAN IN VEGAS into a lead role in the CAT-III film TEMPTATION OF AN ANGEL. After that, she returned to her native Taiwan and established a career as a television actress/personality. She has since gone on to motherhood.
Add on to that the fact that reigning pop queen Joey Yung Tso-Yi was the only one to emerge from EEG’s “Three Little Flowers” (Yung, Grace Ip, Lillian Ho Ka-Lei) and you get the sense that the odds of “making it” in the entertainment circle are about the same as the odds of survival for cheetah cubs in the wild.
In case you were wondering what happened to the other two “Little Flowers”, Lillian Ho dropped out of the entertainment circle in 2002 after a bid to promote her in the Taiwanese market failed. She is currently married to Lucky Dessert heir Wong Yat-King. I’ve written about Grace Ip (Yip Pui-Man) in the past.
- From the moment Simon Yam gets dressed to the moment the pickpockets divide the fruits of their labour haul in the car, Johnnie To makes the life of a petty criminal seem pretty cool. I wonder if he can do the same thing for blogging. Are you looking for a challenge Mr. To? How about filming the LoveHKFilm bloggers as they majestically strike the keys on their keyboards? How about you work your magic and make rolling a mouse around on a mousepad look like the coolest thing ever? Based on SPARROW’s opening sequence, I’m willing to bet you could make geeks like me, Kozo and The Golden Rock look like gods.
Image credits: Hong Kong Digital Vision (Stephy Tang), The Sun (Kelly Lin, Jewel Li, Meggie Yu circa 1999), Milkway Image (Still from SPARROW, Wong Chung in ELECTION)