2008 FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL FEATURE! Kei (Simon Yam) is a pickpocket, or “sparrow” as they are called in Hong Kong jargon. Which isn’t to say he isn’t a gentleman. In fact, his unconventional career affords him lots of time to enjoy bicycling around the city indulging his hobby of photography. He has a small but loyal crew, and his biggest daily concern is making sure they don’t get ahead of themselves as he teaches them the craft. However, when an actual sparrow flies into his apartment, a potential bad omen, Kei’s carefree life and that of his crew are put into serious jeopardy.
Incidentally, at about the same time Kei encounters the real sparrow, he also crosses paths with Chun Lei (Kelly Lin), a beautiful and mysterious young woman who asks Kei and his crew to help her escape the clutches of her sugar daddy Mr. Fu (Lo Hoi Pang). Kei’s been in the game long enough to know that women only mean trouble, but when his crew goes behind his back and fails, he is forced into confronting Mr. Fu, himself a veteran pickpocket. Annoyed at Mr. Fu’s arrogance in trying to keep a woman who doesn’t love him, Kei accepts the old man’s challenge, setting up an elegant and surprising meeting of wits and quick hands.
Better known as an action director, “Sparrow” is a marked departure for Johnnie To, with bullet ballet being replaced by deft razor slight of hand. In fact, there isn’t a single gun in the whole movie, which feels more like a breezy French film from the 60’s than a standard HK actioner. To’s touch is airy light, buoyed by a jazzy score and an especially charming performance by To regular Yam. Three years in the making, the film often feels like To’s love letter to the city of Hong Kong, and there is a palpable joy and lightness on display in the sumptuously photographed shots of the city.
The rain soaked climax is surprisingly effective, slow motion raindrops bouncing ominously off of umbrella’s onto crisp black suits as Kei must pass a gauntlet of pickpockets in order to win Chun Lei’s freedom. And yet, it is this same lightness that is the film’s major weakness. Character development, with the exception of Kei, is virtually non-existent and despite a good set-up, the plot is disappointingly paper thin. The metaphor of the caged bird is a little too obvious to really be touching and the ending, while happy, seems unfinished.
And yet despite these complaints, there is a pure pleasure in the film that seems to radiate right off the screen. Maybe it is this feeling that makes the film’s shortcomings all the more obvious, but only after the fact. For the time actually spent watching the film, “Sparrow” is as refreshing as a cool glass of lemonade on a hot day.