Hong Kong film maker and heir to John Woo, Johnnie To's latest film, Sparrow, follows in the understated elegance and hip beatnik style that he has been able to procure in films like 'Election', 'Breaking News' and 'Exiled'. Though Johnnie To is more renowned for his trail blazing work in the Hong Kong action genre, his laid back, Godardian directorial style is at exact opposites with the ultra fast and violent spectacle of cinema pioneered by Woo in the 80s and 90s. Since 'Exiled' in 2006, To has really mellowed as a film maker, and the virtual absence of a plot in his latest film 'Sparrow' seems to confirm his shift towards the unstructured philosophical ideology of someone like Jean Luc Godard. 'Sparrow' was made over a period of 3 years and if this is a true production fact then To and his crew have done a remarkable job ensuring continuity. What makes this such a fascinating film when positioned within the ouvere of Johnnie To is how it signals an evolution in terms of his maturity as a key auteur in East Asian cinema.
In terms of genre, 'Sparrow' like 'Mad Detective' is an oddball of a movie, drawing on multiple cinematic references and celebrating the lexicon of To's favourite Hollywood genres like the musical, film noir and melodrama. The narrative is an inspired one as we enter the world of a group of ingenious and charismatic pickpockets who spend their time leisurely roaming the streets of Hong Kong, proving to one another of their invaluable and immeasurably confident skills. The band of lovable rouges is led by Kei who is played by a To regular, Simon Yam, who has now joined the ranks of an illustrious series of East Asian actors like Tony Leung, Anthony Wong and Andy Lau that have remained vital to the appeal of Asian cinema to Western sensibilities.
An urban, city film that uses the motif of the femme fatale to manipulate audience expectations, 'Sparrow' reaches its stylistic high point towards the end of the film when Kei is challenged by a big time Hong Kong gangster to what amounts to an absurd but sublimely executed pickpocket sequence that takes place with umbrellas, rain and beautifully judged slow motion. 'Sparrow' is one of the most pleasurable cinematic experiences that I have encountered in a while. It is a film that deserves a wider audience but part of me wishes it just remained a hidden gem so that only a few of us would know about the secret pleasures of a Johnnie To movie.