Sparrow – 文雀
Director: Johnnie To (杜琪峯)
Cast: Simon Yam (任達華), Kelly Lin (林熙蕾), Gordon Lam (林家棟), Law Wing-Cheong (羅永昌)
You would think that filmmakers who spend up to three years shooting a film would come out of the process with a grand, overstuffed mega-epic. Think of a Michael Bay production on steroids. But for director Johnnie To, the result of his on-again, off-again production is a breezy, stylish, and loving tribute to the art of filmmaking and the magnificent city of Hong Kong.
Simon Yam is Kei, the smooth, cool-as-can-be leader of a group of pickpockets. Business is thriving thanks to absent-minded pedestrians and clueless tourists, but when a mysterious woman (the lovely Taiwanese model-turned-actress Kelly Lin) appears and, true to her femme fatale roots, seduces each man into harms way, the foursome must overcome infighting and competition from a larger crime syndicate to help this seductive stranger. You see, she is from China, and she is not in Hong Kong because she wants to be.
Much has been made of the film’s apparent lack of story and overemphasis on style. But upon watching the film multiple times, I am convinced that To’s use of style is what conveys the story and depth of character, much like in his previous film, The Mission (鎗火). For example, a scene at the beginning shows the four men at work on the streets of Hong Kong, targeting and picking off unsuspecting victims. It is shot in long take format, which means that the entire scene is uninterrupted by cuts or other transitions, allowing viewers to see how the group works together to distract, pilfer, and move on to the next person. In this 3-4 minute scene, the audience understands everything they need to know about the group with essentially no dialogue. From their playful ribbing and in-group competition to their trust, skill, and use of razors which they hide under their tongues (check out the special features on the official DVD for Simon Yam giving a real life demonstration of this technique), it is an incredibly impressive scene with a great deal of subtext. As another example in Sparrow, take a look at the following scene.
The scene accomplishes quite a lot in defining Simon Yam’s character. Though there is no dialogue, the combination of wistful music, narrative cinematography, and Simon’s superb performance and subtle expressions conveys how he feels about the city of Hong Kong as well as Kelly Lin’s character. But perhaps in this scene more than any other, To’s personal feelings are on full display. Every film from a director is a bit autobiographical, but when I view this scene, I see To riding that bicycle, not Simon. He has been Hong Kong’s most consistently successful director for more than 10 years, and despite the offers he has no doubt received to direct films in Hollywood, he has chosen to remain in Hong Kong for the time being. Why? I think this scene answers that question.
More than just a love letter to Hong Kong, To uses his knowledge of world cinema to take Hong Kong films in a new direction. While he may wear his influences on his sleeve, like the best Asian directors, he knows how to transpose them and make them work in his environment. Watch this next clip here.
The sharing of a cigarette becomes more than just an intimate moment between two characters; it is am implied breaking of the fourth wall as To seduces us into his film world. It is reminiscent of the spare style of Jean-Pierre Melville and the playfulness of Jean-Luc Godard, but by using every trick in the book, from the high speed filming combined with seductive glances to banking on the locally appealing personae of the two stars, it becomes uniquely Hong Kong in nature. And this is ultimately what you get with Sparrow, a hybridized film that could only come from Hong Kong. While it may take some familiarity with previous Milky Way productions and To’s own filmmaking style to truly appreciate every aspect of it, it is nevertheless an extremely enjoyable and flirtatious film and should persuade you to check out more of Johnnie To’s works.
As a final point to mention, the music, a mixture of classic jazz with international influences, adds so much to the film in terms of tone and atmosphere. Composed by Fred Avril and Xavier Jamaux, it is playful, catchy, and visual. It’s rare to listen to a piece of music and come away from the experience with a concrete visual image of what it represents, but that’s what Avril and Jamaux accomplish. Thankfully, it’s also refreshingly absent of synthesized pop tunes that have become perfunctory in mainstream Hong Kong fare. I highly encourage you to check out some samples here, and if you like, download the whole album for only $9. Seventeen tracks for only $9. That’s a bargain.