Was it worth the wait? Three years is a long time to make a film, especially one as short and slight as Johnnie To's Sparrow. To pieced Sparrow together over the course of three years, writing the script as he went with the Milkyway Creative Team, and asking actors back to film new scenes when necessary. The same process was used to create his acclaimed 2003 thriller PTU, but that film was likely easier for international audiences to accept. It was a Milkyway crime film that arrived after years of no Milkyway crime films, while Sparrow is a light, playful movie that resembles a French musical and not a down-and-dirty Hong Kong thriller. That doesn't sound like the usual Johnnie To recipe for success.
The plus to Sparrow is that it's To at his most personal; the man put the film together because it was the film he wanted to make, and witnessing the playtime of one of Hong Kong's best directors should never be considered a waste of time. But despite our love for all things Johnnie To, Sparrow really isn't all that, and possesses little narrative thrust or depth to compensate for its brisk pace and cineaste-pleasing style and verve. That said, the film provides loads of cineaste-pleasing style and verve, and predictably, it's all quite enjoyable. Ladies and gentlemen: this is your Johnnie To style over substance moment.
Simon Yam stars as Kei, the leader of a gang of four pickpockets, played by Gordon Lam, Law Wing-Cheong (moonlighting from usual directing and editing duties, e.g. Hooked on You), and Kenneth Cheung. The film opens with Kei prepping for his day, bemused at the appearance of a sparrow flying into his Hong Kong Island-located flat. He relates the incident to his three comrades over a generic Hong Kong breakfast, but the three take it as an omen of bad luck. Afterwards, the four proceed to demonstrate their supremacy at their craft, creating distractions and snatching wallets in an amazing seamless shot. The camera follows them as they deftly take mark after mark, and from this single shot the message seems to be that the pickpocket's life is a wonderful thing.
This early sequence oozes nonchalant charm and playfulness, and depicts the four not as amoral thieves but as charming rogues whose vocation just happens to fall on the other side of the law. Cinema can give positive life to the most unlikely of people, and while thieves have a long tradition of glorification in the movies, To seemingly gives these characters their own uniqueness and Hong Kong flavor. Kei may wear nicely tailored suits and ride a bicycle like he's vacationing in Europe, but he also orders spam and egg on rice in local cafes, and wanders around well-chosen Hong Kong locations that highlight the city's cultural charm as well as its urban architecture and cosmopolitan feel. Sparrow portrays Hong Kong as a romantic and very lovely place - a very large reason that the film feels as seductive as it does.
Further seduction occurs with the appearance of Chung Chun-Lei (Kelly Lin), who first shows up in Kei's sights while he's taking a photo in Central with his super-cool antique camera. He's quickly enchanted by her alluring, damsel-in-distress-and-an-expensive-dress looks, but he's left with nothing but a photo from this first encounter. Curiously, Chun-Lei soon appears in front of the other three pickpockets too, obviously charming each man with the same combination of mystery and glamour, if not outright sexuality. She's obviously the film's metaphorical sparrow, flitting into each man's life and providing that moment of brief, enchanting magic that makes one think that there's more at play than simple happenstance.
But is she bad luck? She's obviously hiding something, and may even be up to no good. Is she a high-class thief? A runaway heiress? A duplicitous femme fatale? Her appearances come with few words and mostly action, drawing us into the mystery of her identity while also giving Johnnie To a chance to show off his talent for irony and good, old-fashioned cinematic storytelling. One moment where Kei and Chun-Lei share a cigarette seems lifted from an old Cary Grant-Grace Kelly caper film, and Lin and Yam ably channel Johnnie To's Hong Kong interpretation of what Hong Kong movie glamour should be. The lively score by Xavier Jamaux and Fred Avril gives every movement and glance pitch-perfect accompaniment. This is cinema to absorb and savor, and is innately enjoyable thanks to its rhythmic pace and flowing visual wit.
The problem is there may not be much to Sparrow besides cinematic sensory pleasure. To and his team of writers create an attractive and sophisticated world filled with charismatic thieves and unspoken rules of honor, but the meat of the film is absent, as many of the undeniably gorgeous scenes don't apply to a complete, compelling whole. The mystery of Chun-Lei's actions seems somewhat unconnected to her true predicament, and the film's main conflict - between Kei's band of pickpockets and an old-school crew of thieves - seems to come largely out of nowhere. Like Throwdown, Sparrow exists in a world where far too many people are versed in an esoteric art - in this case, it's being able to pick pockets via sleight of hand, quick reflexes, and razor blades carried on the tip of one's tongue - and realistically speaking, the idea isn't credible or even that exciting. Sparrow takes place in a Johnnie To world with Johnnie To characters, and that's supposed to be enough to convince audiences who paid money that they're watching a good movie.
Truthfully, what To creates is enough, provided that audiences go in expecting for Johnnie To to work his magic cinema fingers in whatever way he wishes - and not in a manner that the audience necessarily desires. Sparrow is only a disappointment if one goes in expecting a certain sort of film, e.g. a return to P.T.U. or Exiled, or perhaps a regular commercial picture, where the obvious and the routine are handed over efficiently by whatever hack filmmakers are at the helm. Johnnie To has long been more than a hack filmmaker as his films are artful and very thoughtful. They're put together with effort and skill, and even when they falter, there is some evidence of a direction or intent that's worth admiring. Sparrow seems obvious in its intent: it just wants to have fun, both with its characters and with cinema, and To certainly does have fun. His giddy enjoyment is present in nearly every frame.
The fun factor of Sparrow makes it difficult to really slam it. Unlike Throwdown (Sparrow's closest comparison, considering its themes, characters, and obtuse screenplay), Sparrow does not deliver anything truly affecting. Throwdown used its cinematic set pieces to develop its characters or demonstrate emotional catharsis; Sparrow doesn't seem to even attempt that, using its style to signal nothing more than superficial cinema coolness. Only at one or two moments does the film really dig beneath its exterior to show something compelling. Otherwise, the film is never more than a collection of technical superlatives, from art direction to locations to music to the actors, with the usual Milkyway crew handling their genre-typical roles to near perfection.
Sparrow simply screams Johnnie To from frame one until its excessive slow-motion pick-pocket finale, a noted homage to the French musical Umbrellas of Cherbourg that simultaneously dazzles and confounds. The sequence is a microcosm of the whole film; it's lovely and mesmerizing, but also alienating because it's style over discernible substance. An audience member who swears allegiance to Johnnie To will probably be with him every step of the way, citing his assured style as enough reason to call the film quality. But those who've raised eyebrows at To's past displays of arch cleverness? They may turn up their nose and call it an empty Johnnie To show. Better to split the difference, and let Sparrow fly unfettered by critical cynicism. Frankly, it makes the film easier to enjoy. There's sound and fury here, and while it may signify nothing, it's still something to behold. (Kozo, Reviewed at the Udine Far East Film Festival, 2008)