January 12, 2009
Johnny To - 2008
Universe Entertainment Region 3 DVD
I'm more interested in the Golden Horse awards, than I am in Golden Globes. Also, when year end lists appear, it's the films without U.S. distributors that strike my curiosity. And yes, my reaction to Sparrow was the same as that of Andrew Grant.
This story about pickpockets in Hong Kong is unlike the adrenaline fueled films that may come to mind when mentioning Johnny To. The film appears to be gently meandering along seemingly aimlessly, like lead pickpocket Simon Yam, moseying along on his bicycle, looking for the easiest and most profitable marks. The relaxed feeling is emphasized by the cool jazz score. No one is in a particular rush to get anywhere, except for Kelly Lin, who can't run very fast in high heels. Some of the streets are as steep as those to be found in San Francisco. Most of Sparrow takes place within the urban spaces of Hong Kong. The several shots of birds in cages is another reminder of the limited space that the characters call home. Characters find themselves trapped on rooftops, alleys and cul-de-sacs. This use of space has its comedic highlight when Yam and his gang crowd in an elevator with Lin and two men carrying a large glass aquarium.
None of the on-screen criminals can compare with To, who plays his own kind of con game with the audience. Yam and his gang encounter Kelly Lin, at what appear to be chance meetings, individually. To never reveals very much so that it is uncertain about who is gaming who. Wherever Lin shows up, several black suited guys also appear, although it is initially unclear who they are or how they figure in the proceedings. In extending the game analogy, To slowly shows his cards one at a time rather than quickly revealing his hand.
The technical displays of Exiled are played down for a simpler visual style. The simplicity is devious. Even when the camera is observing the action, the narrative is propelled as much by what is not seen, be it hidden motivations, mistaken identities, or the subtle sleight of hand. What Sparrow also has in common with Exiled is a story about a group of men whose lives are disrupted by the presence of a woman, but just as the new film diverges visually, so it also is gentler with the characters, leaving everyone alive, perhaps a bit wiser.
In the DVD supplement, To discusses being inspired by Jacques Demy's Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and originally envisioning Sparrow as a musical. Simon Yam almost dances his way out of his dump of an apartment in the film's first scene. The grand set piece could well be called "The Umbrellas of Hong Kong". Credit To for further undoing genre expectations by having the final confrontation between Yam and his gang against their rivals as a slow motion stroll in the rain. Replacing the bullet ballet is choreographed movement of umbrellas, hand movements, razors cutting cloth, and splashes of water. It could well be that in its inventiveness, Sparrow has been denied a U.S. release by refusing to be an Asian film defined by martial arts or gunplay. It could well be that Sparrow is Johnny To's most personal film to date with To as a sparrow, not as a pickpocket referred to in Hong Kong slang, but as an uncaged bird who chooses to fly his own way.
Posted by peter at January 12, 2009 12:03 AM
Excellent review. I loved Sparrow. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it my favorite Johnnie To film in a decade- I'd have to go back to a Hero Never Dies to find one I found as satisfying. If I had seen it in time for the deadline, I would certainly have placed it on one of my sf360 lists. Which one? Probably the distributed list, actually. It was released for a multiple-week run starting on Christmas Day at the 4-Star; it's still got one more week there, though it's down to one show per day.
Posted by: Brian at January 16, 2009 04:09 AM
A Hero Never Dies just got added to the queue.
Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at January 16, 2009 10:23 AM
It's a very different sort of film, but I think you'll like it...
Posted by: Brian at January 16, 2009 02:26 PM