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Sparrow, The (2008)
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by Jay Seaver

"When it's beautiful, it's almost musical."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Johnnie To's "Sparrow" begins with a small delight of a scene: Simon Yam sewing a button back onto his coat. The score could come from a classic musical, and from Yam's body language, the audience almost expects him to jump up and burst into song and dance. What a movie it would have been if he had, rather than being frequently tied down by plot!

That plot has Yam's Kei playing one of a team of four pickpockets; they're often good enough that they can extract the money out of a person's wallet and return it. Kei's hobby is photography, and one day he snaps some pictures of a beautiful woman (Kelly Lin). This woman, Chung Chun Lei, is the unhappy mistress of Boss Fu (Lo Hoi-Pang), and she also has encounters with the other members of the team. Fu's men are not pleased with that, and rough them up, which is part of why Kei is more than a little hesitant when Chun Lei asks for their help in retrieving her passport - which Fu keeps in a locked safe with the key always on his person.

Sparrow is often far more whimsical than what people think of as the typical Johnnie To movie, although that's due in part to the fact that his gangster movies get exported with far more regularity than his forays into other genres. There are times when it does seem like he is trying to make something like a musical or a dance picture, as the pickpockets wordlessly show off their precision work to the wonderful score by Fred Avril and Xavier Jamaux. The sequence at the end, in the rain with umbrellas, is a thing of true beauty.

At the moments when it becomes necessary to advance the plot, though, the movie sometimes stumbles. I don't know if we ever get any sort of explanation to why Chun Lei chooses these four pickpockets to help her, for example. This movie also feels like it's just primed for romance yet doesn't really do much in that department at all; it's tough to guess whether Chun Lei favors Kei or the more smoothly handsome Bo (Lam Ka Tung) out of the pickpockets.

That disjointedness is somewhat to be expected, giving this film's odd production history - To and company spread the filming of Sparrow out over three years, getting scenes done when the people involved were between other projects (To probably finished five or six other films while shooting this one). He does a really remarkable job of making the whole thing stick together, and in some ways I think it may have helped a lot of the sequences: There are a number of individual bits that really sparkle in this movie, and I wonder if just being able to concentrate on them and be done for a few months rather than it being just another day in a weeks-long grinding shoot kept everybody fresh.

Simon Yam is a pleasure to watch in many of his scenes; especially early on, he's playful and able to laugh at himself. There's enough joy in the photography scenes that I wondered if it was an actual hobby of his. Kelly Lin's character is sort of a chameleon at times, to the point where I didn't initially make the connection between the frazzled woman Kei meets and the brash one Bo meets in a casino. She's fun as the seductress but her ability to be bold that way doesn't serve to make the audience discount the times she's worried or afraid. Lo Hoi-Pang is able to take what is initially a small role and muscle his way to the front of the movie by the end.

As befits a movie that was shot in pieces over time, "Sparrow" is often more impressive in pieces than as a whole, but many of those pieces are exquisite. It makes me curious to see what To would do with a musical, and (long-term) what his recent talk of shooting a movie in pieces over ten years might lead to.

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originally posted: 07/08/08 23:31:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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  N/A (NR)
  DVD: 30-Dec-2008



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