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Sparrow (Man jeuk)

dir: Johnnie To
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Hong Kong director Johnnie To has made so many films that saying something like “and so I’m going to review the latest film by Johnnie To” is a pointless endeavour, because by the time you’ve finished writing the review, he’s put out another film.

At the very least I can say this is a recent film of his, and that I managed to catch it as part of a retrospective in honour of the great man that played recently at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Apparently he even came out to Australia for it, which is pretty sensational. He was probably pissed off that he couldn’t smoke in the theatre, if I can hazard a guess based on anecdote and on most of his films, in which every single goddamn character has to smoke constantly.

Of course even a fairly knowledgeable film watcher / movie goer would be saying to themselves, “yeah, and who the fuck is Johnnie To anyway, and why should I care?” And right you are.

It doesn’t matter. He is a good Hong Kong director who has made a string of decent movies. Sparrow is his latest, is a very good film, and I would even call it a significant departure for the director if his career wasn’t already littered with examples of genre-ignoring endeavours on his part.

He makes whatever flicks he wants. Sure, his more action orientated flicks get noticed overseas (like The Mission, Breaking News, the Election movies and Exiled), but he makes romantic dramas and comedies if he feels like it too. I’ve heard tell he can knit a mean sweater and whip up a batch of scones in record time as well, but that could be apocryphal, so don’t quote me.

Sparrow is remarkable in some ways because it tells a compelling, light-hearted and almost comedic tale whilst maintaining a very curious French aesthetic. Was it deliberate, was it planned as such? I don’t know. There are echoes of Melville or even Bresson (who has a film called Pickpocket, oddly enough), but I could be projecting them onto the film.

As well, making such references is only going to convince people the film is a stack of Cantonese shit masquerading as pretentious Eurasian-trash, and that would be unfair.

Sparrow, or at least the Cantonese equivalent of the word, is a Hong Kong nickname for ‘pickpocket’, and so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that our main characters here are a gang of professional pickpockets, led by Kei (Simon Yam). Our introduction to their Hong Kong shows them working at full capacity fleecing a whole bunch of people individually and in tandem, all breathlessly choreographed to the tune of the slinky jazz stylings accompanying the scene.

Not to play the moral equivalency card, but these guys aren’t the hardened criminals and Triad gangsters who usually populate Hong Kong movies. They’re the lowest level of crim in the criminal hierarchy, who see no percentage in confrontation or even having their victims even know what’s happened until they’re long gone. The signature tool of their trade is the tiniest part of a retractable knife blade, the ones that you break of in sections in order to get to a sharper part. With it they imperceptibly slice through pockets and linings to get to the goodies we thought we were carrying around safely.

What fools we are to think so. After a successful day’s work, the team split up to do whatever it is they do when they’re not stealing people’s hard-earned cash.

Odd, that over the course of a day, every member of the team seems to bump into the same, mysterious woman. Kei first sees her when he’s taking snaps with his vintage cameras (how old school!). The other guys bump into her in bars, in elevators, on deserted country roads. She flirts shamelessly with all of them, even as we get indications that she is being watched and followed, at all times.

Chun Lei (Kelly Lin), the mysterious girl (described as both young and beautiful, which I think is a bit of a stretch on both counts), is the mistress of a powerful, old man, who is also probably a shady character of some description. Fu (Lo-Hoi Pang) is, like most old, rich men who see fewer days ahead than behind, clinging jealously to all of his possessions, and Chun Lei is his prize possession.

Like a caged bird that longs to be free, she dreams of escape. Her cage is more diffuse, though, because without the passport that her old lover keeps in a safe, she can’t get back to China like she desperately wishes.

Do you think there’s a job in it for the team of pickpockets?

Even after each of them is targeted and maimed in different ways by Fu’s lackeys, they still gallantly want to help her out. And all she needs to do to get them on side is to stare at them patiently with a sad expression on her face before they’re willing to brave the gates of the Nine Hells themselves for her.

All except Kei, who’s got more brains than the others, and sees her for the opportunist that she is. Quite rightly he resents her for being taken for a ride in the first place, and for being expected to risk permanent injury and death without so much as a blowjob as payment in kind.

The nerve of some people. Throughout all of this Simon Yam is the charming motherfucker that he’s generally been in at least 70 per cent of the 100s of films he’s been in over the last twenty years, not counting the ones where he played perverts, corpse rapists and villains. There are long scenes of him just smoking in that utterly pornographic way that actors do in Johnnie To films, and it’s the closest his flicks get to having sex scenes. It’s obscene. As a staunch ex-smoker, it’s hard to watch scenes like that sometimes without wanting, downright fucking craving a smoke.

It’s not a complex film, philosophically or thematically. In fact its point is as complex as a quote from that Confucian sage Sting, who once wisely intoned “If you love someone, set them free.” The characters are all surface, and are defined only by the bond of camaraderie that exists between the crew’s members, and what they do out of loyalty to some attractive woman. Anything else would have been extraneous. We don’t need to know what the ins-and-outs are of Chun Lei’s psyche; it’s enough to know that she wants to go home, and that her time as a crazy stripper wife to an octogenarian no longer entertains her like it used to.

In a turn up for the books, they never really go out of their way to demonise Fu. Sure, his goons cripple various body parts of Kei’s gang just for having looked at Chun Lei, but he’s not a monster. Chun Lei herself points out that he’s always been kind and gentle with her, even if he keeps her on a short leash.

When it builds up to its version of a final showdown, I swear to Buddha I was thoroughly amazed. Even as I smiled, I got to watch one of the most amazing sequences committed to celluloid.

Imagine if you will the kinds of Western – cowboy flicks that used to end with a shootout at noon, at the OK Corral, or in some town that had managed to piss off Clint Eastwood to the point where he decided he was going to kill everybody himself. Now imagine that instead of being filmed in the middle of the day in Colorado, Montana or New Jersey, they transpose the action to the rain-strewn street corners of Hong Kong at night.

Also, have the confrontation occur not with guns, but with pickpockets holding nothing but umbrellas and those tiny blades. And again, it is not a confrontation of violence, but of rival pickpockets going at it with one man’s hands, and a woman’s freedom at stake. It was inspired, to say the very least. So very well made and put together.

As much as I enjoyed this, in fact loved this film, from its look to its feel, I’m not fooled by it. I have seen perfume and beer commercials with more depth, relevance and characterisation. The fact is ultimately it’s a caper film, albeit a far more satisfying, far less self-indulgent one that those execrable Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Sixty Three movies by Clooney and co. At least Sparrow doesn’t make me want to punch a puppy in the face every time I think about it.

Approach or avoid accordingly.

8 times I wondered where the film would have gone had it been made, oh, I don’t know, in the San Fernando Valley area out of 10

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“Mr Policeman, I think you dropped your handcuffs.” – Sparrow.

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