MVFF '09: Sparrow


Sparrow is a weird little movie. It's an obvious pet project by director Johnnie To that moves in its own breezy rhythm, no doubt an aftereffect of its lax shooting style. Over a period of three years, To and his tight crew—which includes usual faces like Simon Yam and Lam Ka Tung—would shoot scenes for Sparrow in-between their big projects. It's obvious that it's not one of To's best, but it's a very loose and fun film nonetheless.

You can tell it's a To film by its quartet of male anti-heroes. Simon Yam plays Kei, the leader of a quartet of "sparrows" (Hong Kong slang for pickpockets). A beautiful woman (the luminous Kelly Lin) from mainland China enters all their lives separately, and soon they are tangled in a dangerous game against the woman's husband, an old and powerful gang boss. A pretty lady wants to escape a dirty old codger to her homeland... So what are four honor-bound (and smitten) men to do?

Unlike in To's own cool-as-ice Exile, however, our four heroes aren't tough guys with the guns to blast a happy ending for the girl. They're lowly wallet snatchers, who make up for their general lack of physical prowess by outsmarting suckers. The challenge is what happens when they go up against a group of people who are better at doing what they do than they are.

A heist film in miniature, To deals with his usual themes like honor and brotherhood and the camaraderie found in a life of crime—without any of the bloodshed. Well, not much anyway. The violence are mostly played for laughs.

There are moments of playfulness that are really entertaining even if they don't quite build up to something. A reflection of its shoot, perhaps. Kei is an amateur photographer, so there's a Parisian scene where he catches a passing glimpse of his beautiful damsel through the viewfinder and hoofs after her, camera and tripod in tow. Very pomp-like, very perfume-ad-romance. Then To throws in his own take when the chase ends up in an alley in time for a vicious beatdown.

The thing that truly makes this a Johnnie To film is a rain-soaked climax in which the two gangs of pickpockets "battle" on the streets of Hong Kong by picking each other's pockets—filmed in To's signature graceful slow-mo. It's a completely absurd set piece, of course. If anyone is watching this duel happening, minus To's lens, it would look like a bunch of grown men walking in circles, bumping into each other over and over again in the rain. But in his hands, it's a beautifully executed sequence that tells a story in movements.

I have a suspicion that To started with this sequence and built the story around it. It feels that way, anyway.

• • •


Running time: 87
Country: Hong Kong
Category: World Cinema
Directed by: Johnnie To
Producer: Johnnie To
Screenwriters: Kin Chung Chang, Chi Keung Fung
Cinematographer: Cheng Siu-Keung
Editor: David Richardson
Cast: Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Lam Ka-tung, Lo Hoi-pang, Law Wing-cheong, Kenneth Cheung


Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for


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