Sparrow (To, 2008)

Johnnie To’s Sparrow begins as seamlessly as it ends – with the arrival of a cagey bird in a lifeless apartment. This often unseen symbol whisks from scene to scene without a care in the world, playing a vibrant foil to the many cheeky characters attempting to control their shifting Hong Kong criminal landscape. These efforts are futile of course, and it’s beautiful to watch each character give in to the subliminal ease associated with the non-diagetic score and crisp widescreen framing.

To replaces blood and guns with whimsy and slapstick comedy, constructing a hazy world where criminals aren’t brutal, but pragmatic, charming rather than abrasive. To’s vision comes to a head in the dynamic silent finale amidst gushing rain and a sea of umbrellas, where the renowned master of violent conflict finds the harmony in the prank. Razor blades have never been uses so effortlessly and kindly.

There’s more cinematic virtuosity in this light-as-a-feather ode to romance, honor, and music than most modern Hollywood blockbusters. But To frames his daring kinetics within the genre trappings of a Musical, and Sparrow shows how song and dance springs from many diverse human conflicts. Be it the graceful art of picking pockets or the sublime drift of a female grifter playing friends off each other, To manages to reveal the beauty of cinematic movement and playfulness. If Sparrow comes across a bit silly in the end, it’s only because To takes a step back and re-thinks his own seriousness toward the crime film, finding an amiable alternate universe smiling between the genre cracks.

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2 thoughts on “Sparrow (To, 2008)

  1. Lovely review of a lovely film. I find this one of To’s best — particularly after all the gunfights and action he’s given us that seem to me to have been wearing him (and us) down a bit of late.

  2. Thanks so much, Jim! I agree with you completely. SPARROW is a wonderful change of pace, yet still a testament to To’s visual mastery. It’s a bit disconcerting to see him follow it up with VENGEANCE, an often impressive but equally disappointing example of what you’ve referred to.

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