Johnnie To’s films have been favourites here at Heroic Cinema for years: Alison showed me The Mission years ago and got me hooked on modern Hong Kong film. Hong Kong and its surroundings transform through To’s pictures into somewhere preternaturally cool: all rain-slicked night metropolis, populated by street-crawling thugs (often played by Lam Suet) and the occasional ambiguously dangerous Anthony Wong. And he makes it look easy, too — most of Milkyway Studios’ pictures are beautifully shot, from the opening extended take at the start of Breaking News to Election’s shadowed, moody interiors.
So, of course, Sparrow was the film I was looking forward to seeing at the Sydney Film Festival this year more than anything else. In a lot of ways it’s vintage Milkyway: populated with regular To actors (led by Simon Yam) who are all up to no good, shot down at street level in Hong Kong, with a haunting soundtrack. But there are differences, too: far from the darker atmospheres of the Election films and The Exiled, this one is sunlit and fun-loving, playing up the camaraderie and humour in the relationships between the protagonists. It’s also paced more expansively: at least for most of the film, it feels like a series of loosely-connected vignettes without the sensation that the film is driving towards an inexorable, explosive conclusion.
Simon Yam and his three compatriots are pickpockets operating in the middle of Hong Kong, using razors and misdirection to effortlessly fleece passersby of their money. They’re not common street hoods, either: well-dressed and extremely skilled, you get the distinct impression that at least Yam treats what he does as more of a craft than mere criminal activity. One day, however, all four pickpockets separately encounter a beautiful woman (Kelly Lin) who outdoes them all, manipulating them all expertly and landing them into rather a lot of trouble.
Sparrow is a piece of truly beautiful cinema. There’s superb camerawork on display throughout, several sequences that required exquisite timing from the actors, and a light, beguiling rhythm that draws you in immediately. Simon Yam’s performance is particularly good: in this film he’s a real leading man, all dapper suits and grace, even when riding a bicycle down busy Hong Kong streets.
See it, if you have the chance. It’s further proof that To is one of the best directors working today, and a very different film from the intense slow-burn of Election or his more gun-heavy action films.