Sparrow (2008)

Produced & directed by: Johnnie To
Written by: John Chan, Fung Chi-Keung & Milkyway Creative Team
Starring: Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Gordon Lam, Law Wing-Cheong, Kenneth Cheung, Lo Hoi-Pang & Lam Suet

Buy the DVD at:

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2009:
Best Director (Johnnie To)
Best Actor (Simon Yam)
Best Cinematography (Cheng Siu-Keung)
Best Editing (David Richardson)
Best Original Film Score (Xavier Jamaux & Fred Avril)

Award at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2008:
Best Cinematography (Cheng Siu-Keung)

Nomination at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2008:
Best Original Film Score (Xavier Jamaux & Fred Avril)

Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2009:
Recommended Film

We know it was out there... we just didn't know when Johnnie To was ready to unleash Sparrow. Being reported on for over 3 years as Johnnie and crew were shooting on- and off during that period of time, out of the blue came a finished production to be delivered to its premiere at the 58th Berlin International Film Festival. Having established himself in this festival arena, Sparrow takes a unique Hong Kong approach but merges splendidly with European (especially French) cinema sensibilities. How do I know that? I don't but I feel... and I read the buzz beforehand. Point is, Sparrow is joyous filmmaking where beforehand knowledge is a fun companion but not a required presence. Johnnie To knows to not alienate an audience established and to cater to the whole spectrum that includes himself as well.

A group of pickpockets (Gordon Lam, Law Wing-Cheong and Kenneth Cheung) led by Kei (Simon Yam) gets their daily, successful routines broken when mysterious woman Chung Chun Lei (Kelly Lin) enters their lives. Soon almost the whole group are seduced but the whole group is also attacked by gangsters who seem to hold a grip on Chung's destiny...

With its very straight forward plot, absurdity and nonsense galore, one can almost see an image of Johnnie To in the sandbox amongst other directors sitting right smack in the middle and carving out a sand castle in a way that is fun for him. In other people's eyes, it may seem without purpose and can be shattered at any moment but little/big Johnnie To won't and shouldn't care. He's happy to be here, no matter how much darkness he's had to vent in the Election-movies for instance. Hong Kong is his home and his love for cinema is everywhere. That's pretty much what happens in Sparrow, which is akin to very little to almost nothing depending on how you look at it.

Will there be substance, subtext and depth in a downward spiral for the group of pickpockets where Gordon Lam's Bo seem more anxious to lead? Will Kei's newly found pet sparrow really symbolize their downfall and what is the mystery behind the more often than not stressed out Chung Chun Lei and her affiliation with the gangster world? Is the above part of any purpose of Johnnie To's? On a pure basic story level, sure... he does touch upon these things now and again but remember, To is treating matters like his playtime and it's the better CINEMA experience because of it.

While not lingering on it, To is mostly in love with the tool of letting music speak without it being accompanied by vocals. Sparrow could've even dabbled in pure silence (which it does to quite a large degree once you examine it). As To hits the street with ace cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung, you smell the French vibe as much as the genuine Hong Kong one. Its portrayal oozes elegance once you insert a happy Simon Yam into it and it oozes love for the multi-coloured city that does AS well when photographed old timey style in black and white. It's really the occupation Kei would rather have in combination with a problem free pickpocket life. Women and gangsters are purely in the way but oh well, got to do a per human definition a good deed sometime. Especially since the only pure human in this cinematic world is Kelly Lin's character.

It's important to note this break from reality, which makes Sparrow take on the delightful fever it has. 99% of the characters act according to director To's cinematic reality which sets the stage for all matter of deadpan and quirky excursions with little danger to go with it. If To wishes for a balloon to act as the concept of a "erotic" scene in an elevator between Law Wing-Cheong (1*) and Kelly Lin, he will make it so. If he wishes to indulge in extended takes of driving, smoking (matters that are amped to wonderfully silly levels in terms of style), he will but speaking specifically of the smoking-scene, it's wonderful how he makes characters break their perfect motion and really acknowledge it too. All for one purpose, to make Johnnie giggle. Johnnie's got a cinema-gun. Throw in some cross dressing too and he's more than willingly "sinking" to a comedy level perhaps present in his directorial work for the first time in decades. If one were to look clearly, character designs act as setup and "depth" with Yam being leadership, the loner by choice. Gordon is the impulsive, the gambler, the rookie. Law Wing-Cheong Mr. Ugly and Kenneth Cheung kind of a cool dude. Yep, I'm stretching here because the above has no purpose in the final message brought forth. Which in itself is scribbled in almost indecipherable child hieroglyphs on small piece of paper.

There's again little to nothing going on except the barely scripted conflict but why there's nothing to complain about is due to spot on atmosphere with dose upon dose of injected delight that screams surreal as much as it is a cinematic postcard or love letter to matters close to Johnnie To's heart. With the slow motion pick pocketing finale registering creepiness as much as joy, we come back to the point that nothing is truly lost without the knowledge of what Johnnie To is acknowledging. In fact, it might even be the utmost advantage. An homage to new wave French cinema I'm sure Sparrow nails splendidly but as the Hong Kong cinema experience, the other percentage of the audience could take Sparrow to heart. It's proper self indulging and another example of why Johnnie To can afford to not make a whole host of new fans when doing it HIS way.

The DVD:

Universe presents the movie in an aspect ratio of 2.38:1 approximately, with anamorphic enhancement. Some sections look a bit soft but on the whole the transfer is pleasing in regards to colours and sharpness.

Audio options are Cantonese (Kelly Lin speaks most of her dialogue in Mandarin however) Dolby Digital 5.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 but as I'm not equipped with such a system, my assessment of this disc aspect will be left off this review.

Aside from a minor error or two, the English subtitles are coherent. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Universe wisely chose to add English subtitles (albeit permanent ones) to the extra features so we can properly examine the various materials at hand. Starting with the Making Of (2 minutes), despite the short running time Johnnie To manages to elaborate well on the character of Kelly Lin and what to expect of the film.

(from the Johnnie To and Simon Yam interviews)

Interviews has sessions with Johnnie To (7 minutes, 23 seconds, Simon Yam (13 minutes, 6 seconds), Kelly Lin (4 minutes, 26 seconds) and Gordon Lam (8 minutes, 35 seconds). To is his usual informative self, talking of the fondness he has for the buildings in Hong Kong, the memories they represent and why they are part of the inspiration for the film. There's also good notes on shooting the finale where he mentions the direct influence French cinema had in addition to the fact that he wanted it to be a musical number!

Simon Yam echoes the intentions of capturing memories via buildings, especially so via his own photography. Furthermore, there's mentions of the difficulties of shooting without a script, shooting sporadically but the advantages of having the chance to witness events on the streets and more on the themes of the film in this informative sitdown. Kelly Lin talks of maintaining a character over such a long period of shooting while also sharing well-informed praise on her director and co-star Yam. Gordon spends a little too much time discussing what goes on in the movie but has some fun stories to share about the male cast all riding one bike on multiple occasions in the film.

(from the Press Conference)

Gala Premiere (4 minutes, 13 seconds) is the usual calculated, corny gathering that the cast & crew try to endure (especially an always super-energetic announcer grates but Simon demonstrating his skills with the razor in his mouth is amusing). Press Conference (9 minutes, 9 seconds) rolls on along the same lines but a press junket is what it is. A duty for the film. A 20 image strong Photo Gallery and the trailer finishes the disc.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson


(1) In house editor and assistant director for many years at Milkyway but is now a director of note, especially his Hooked On You from 2007.