It’s clear from the opening scene of Sparrow that this isn’t a typical Johnnie To film. Simon Yam gets dressed in his tailored suit amid the impossibly chic retro furniture of his Technicolor apartment when a sparrow flits in through the open window. You half-expect Yam to start whistling Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. It’s a world away from the gritty gangster lands of To’s Election or Exiled, but then, as shown by the bonkers Mad Detective, To isn’t one for playing it safe.
Sparrow is all about lightness of touch and easy charm. So it’s fitting that Yam plays a quick-fingered pickpocket named Kei who, along with his three brothers, gads about old Hong Kong making an easy buck before riding about on his bike and taking photos with his cool antique camera. Yam takes to the playboy persona with ease, in a role akin to Cary Grant’s in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, and, inevitably, it’s a striking woman who knocks him off balance.
The brothers all have a chance meeting with the beautiful Chung Chun Lei (Kelly Lin), who’s desperate to escape the clutches of a rival pickpocket, the cigar-chomping Mr Fu (Hoi-Pang Lo). What ensues is a breezy collection of pickpocket ‘showdowns’ that test the various skills of the players. There’s little substance to these episodes, but To’s worked hard on some deft camera movements to capture the balletic nature of the pickpocket at work. It’s all highly romanticised, as if the protagonists were in a make-believe 60s Paris where such a crime is seen as an art form, but it’s a joy to watch thanks to the vintage cinematography and jazzy soundtrack.
There’s an element of screwball comedy to the proceedings, with To relying on slapstick comedy and visuals to move the story on, as if he was worried that any heavy expositional dialogue might stop it dead. And it largely works; the brothers don’t really talk to each other but their actions drive things forward. At first, they try to help Chung Chun Lei without Kei but end up in hot water, so they turn to their leader to sort things out. Things culminate in a largely wordless stand-off involving umbrellas and rain that To draws out with the confidence and flair he has become famous for.
While Sparrow has done without the realism and darkness of To’s previous movies, it still excites and engages in different ways. It’s something unique, a fusion of styles and cultures that you rarely find in cinema. Luckily there’s directors like To out there, who experiment with the different filmic languages they’ve been exposed to, and with Sparrow he’s put together a marvellous blend of hip European cool and offbeat Asian storytelling.