Nominated for 10 major Asian film awards and winning three of them, Sparrow has accumulated a lot of success in the Far East since its 2008 release and Johnnie To’s film certainly displays some intricate and quirky film-making.
“Sparrow” is Hong Kong slang for a pick-pocket and is also the nickname for veteran thief and photography enthusiast, Kei (Simon Yam). Leading his band of pick-pockets and looking to capture the bustling world of Hong Kong through his lens, Kei sees Chun-Lei (Kelly Lin) flitting past. Enthralled, Kei’s group track her down to where here trail ends: a rival pick-pocketing gang led by Mr Fu (Hoi-Pang Lo). With Chun-Lei looking for freedom, both gangs compete for her possession.
Sparrow is a film without much action, however its intensity is derived from some intricate and subtly linked sequences. The climax of the film highlights this perfectly with close-ups of small blades (the tool of choice for pick-pockets), and fast paced shots that contrast faultlessly with the slow motion. The intertwining of characters as they cross the road combined with the rain and umbrellas lined up (looking like a scene from Singing in the Rain) creates a truly tense atmosphere with some aesthetically pleasing cinematography.
The film draws nicely on some aspects of film noir that compliment Sparrow stylistically. The seductive and dangerous demeanour of Chun-Lei emphasises her “femme-fatale” characteristics. Close-ups of lipstick on cigarettes highlight the sexual tension between Kei and Chun-Lei and create a very subtle relationship. These pieces of action are intersected with small and snappy moments of comedy. Kei’s gang of bandaged pick-pockets limping pathetically towards Chun-Lei is a truly witty scene, devoid of dialogue, like many of the best parts of the film.
Brilliant and intelligently woven cinematography is accompanied with a sprightly Jazz soundtrack, and like the sparrow that flutters around Kei’s apartment, Sparrow is a film with a staccato, yet gritty atmosphere.