Johnny To is quite a veteran, Sparrow being his 49th film already. But even though he has made quite a few films in the 80s and 90s, it's only recently that he got his international break. Before mostly known to Hong Kong action die-hards, both his Election films elevated him above his peers. And even after all that time, he still has quite a few surprises left in him.
I've been tracking To for some time now and even though he's made some fun films in the past, he really raised the bar after making the Election twins (and Exiled in between). Since then, he's been making films that are more than just simple genre works. With Sparrow, he goes beyond and delivers what might well be his best work to date.
It's difficult to explain the flow and feel of Sparrow. In some ways it feels a lot like classic cinema, but made with a classy smirk. The tone is light, the setting and characters elegant, the humor never feels out of place though it usually is. And beneath all that is a pretty smart play of cat and mouse, adding another layer or wit to the film.
Simon Yam is perfect in his role of elegant gang leader. He's an actor that's been around and really cut out for a job like this. His character is always in control, stylish and elegant. Behind him is a team of trainee pickpockets, learning the trade from the master. All is well until they are played in return by a lady, drawing them into a neat little showdown with a senior pickpocket artisan.
Visually the film is remarkably neat and clean. Every shot shows detail and consideration, the use of color is spot on and the film features some awesome shots of Hong Kong (showing quite a few sites reminiscent of the Ghost In The Shell cityscapes). In between To even finds time for several playful tricks reminiscent of Kar-Wai's In The Mood For Love. To shows himself a master of visual storytelling, which is needed as the film itself features little dialog.
Even more remarkable is the soundtrack. A combination of classic Chinese music and jazz, quite upbeat and always playfully out of place. It gives the film its flow and gives many scenes and extra quirky dimension. Even though the story itself could allow for some tense scenes, the soundtrack never allows this to happen. Not a soundtrack that'd work outside the film (at least for me), but crucial to the fun and pleasantly different.
It takes about 5 minutes to get into the film, it takes about 70 to get hooked. But its those 5 final minutes, bringing a climax that will make this film remembered by all those who've seen it. The finale of the film is really out there, showing nothing but visual poetry and umbrella action. It's an amazing scene drawing a lot from classic western stand-offs, but given a whole new dimension. I've watched the scene a couple of times over since, and just about everything is perfect (it's even said To hired dance choreographers to get the whole flow of the scene right).
Hardcore To fans might find themselves on shaky grounds with Sparrow when they are expecting another gritty action adventure, but all those with a love for cinema should at least try this film. To's passion for the job shows in every scene, in every choice and in every detail. The film has its very own, unique flow and knows to charm from the first minute. And to top it all, it boasts one of the most stunning finales ever seen in film. I can only hope To's box of tricks isn't emptied yet.