Film: Sparrow ***Release date: 15th April 2011
Running time: 87 mins
Director: Johnnie To
Starring: Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Lam Ka-tung, Lo Hoi-pang, Law Wing-cheong
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewer: Daryl Wing
The 'Jerry Bruckheimer of Hong Kong', Johnnie To, has enjoyed a startling career to date, ending the nineties on a high before suffocating in the creative and financial lull endured by a struggling Hong Kong film industry in 2001. Hitting form again with the release of award winner Running On Karma (2003), Breaking News (2004) and Throw Down (2004), the prolific auteur then delivered the mighty Election (2005) and its follow up. Not afraid to venture into the world of comedy, crime-caper ‘Sparrow’ attempts to merge the criminal world with humour and romance, but will a tale about pickpockets falling for the same mysterious woman leave an audience feeling short changed?
A band of pick-pockets (‘sparrow’ in Hong Kong slang) are enjoying a profitable year when their corrupt world is disrupted by the sudden appearance of a beautiful and mysterious lady, who has the nerve to turn the tables on them.
Following her trail, the pick-pockets are led to a face-off on the streets of Hong Kong with a rival pick-pocket gang, with both gangs vying for the possession of this enigmatic lady. As both sides struggle to decide who she plans to side with, revelations about her past reveal a sweeter side to her personality, and a hidden yearning for freedom…
An avian attack in waiting then, with hundreds of starved cynics perched on the edge of their seats, claws freshly sharpened, all waiting silently for any false move so they could take to the sky and begin their savage assault on one of Hong Kong’s most consistent directors – and Sparrow disappointingly allows them all to scratch his eyes out, despite bearing a vivid hallmark of good intent.
It houses all the trappings of a decent gambol across the innocent pastures cultivated by some of Hollywood’s greats from the fifties and sixties. So much so, in fact, if Sparrow starred Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, you would probably appreciate its little oddities far more. The problem is that Johnnie To appears to have lost himself in such a sugar-coated world that he failed to construct a plot that can’t be written down on the back of a postage stamp.
Overpopulated with thinly-drawn characters (and over familiar casting), it’s hindered by a cheap impersonation of Hitchcock’s worst material, and suffers from a director keen to stamp his authority all over key scenes whilst forgetting the rest. The introduction neatly pulls the viewer into this world of over indulgence – and it also sets the stage of expectation at a level the ensuing 80-minutes fail to meet.
It’s difficult to work out whether or not the pacing is deliberately sluggish, because just as scenes start to sag, To does something quite magical, upping the ante, not to mention the interest levels. With a Breakfast at Tiffany’s vibe running throughout, impressive moments include our main protagonist being outsmarted by a girl who can clearly drink until the cows come home, an amusing escape in a crowded lift, To’s obsession with dressing his male leads in ladies rags continuing with a tense massage scene, and the visually poetic finale in the rain with a handful of umbrellas. They may not be searching for a ginger cat, there’s no kiss in the downpour, and it may not make a great deal of sense to western viewers, if to anyone at all, but it’s certainly captivating, and easily the highlight of the film – if indeed you make it that far.
Whether a few minutes of pleasure justifies enduring the other 80 minutes is debatable however, because it takes an eternity for the plot to find its feet, tripped up by an unexplained interest in photography, a cigarette smoking scene about as erotic as kissing an ashtray, To trying to convince the audience that men on crutches can climb ladders just as easily as those without (in fact, they can do everything just as well), an unpaid set-up involving a café owner that laughs at his customers, and not enough backstory or characterization to convince us that the heroine/villain deserves such puppy-eyed adulation.
In its favour, Sparrow is able to walk a careful line between nostalgic crime-caper trappings (the damsel in distress, the sophisticated charmer, quirky side-kicks and goofy innocence) and modern, crime-riddled realism, even if it does frustrate with a fanciful feathered friend who is only too happy to be a flying metaphor. Where is that ginger cat when you need it? How it all ties together is anyone’s guess, and how the journey wasn’t as painful as this review sounds is a bigger crime than those witnessed throughout; in any case, it’s visually satisfying and bizarrely intriguing, with performances impossible to assess and a dreamlike experience suited to Sunday afternoon viewing.
Nestling snugly between his successes and failures, Johnnie To’s Sparrow almost falls fowl of the audience with a film that never really takes flight, and yet has enough magic to carry you through to its fascinating and equally perplexing finale.