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Berlinale 2008: "Sparrow" (To, China)

The pleasures of Johnnie To begin on a purely formal level.
Sparrow

The pleasures of Johnnie To begin on a purely formal level. Long lenses flattening the shot, a camera on tracks to elaborate tension and movement, those fabulous widescreen tableaux of To’s characters variously lined in the frame, the moving camera well zoomed in—To’s characters travel on very thin, narrow trajectories, slight oblique angles almost but not quite flush against the background. The look to this subtle angular movement in the compositional flatness makes cinematic lines, and the lines can be quite elegant, the more so when one can cut, move, and block as fluently as this master. Nowhere is this pleasure in graceful, subtly intersecting lines more evident than when To is having fun. And he is clearly have just that in his new, and utterly delightful film, Sparrow.

Unlike some of To’s lighter and more frothy romantic fare, which can have a tendency to be too glib and glossy, Sparrow is happy and jazzy, loose but poised, and never has the pretensions to true romance and professional cool as a film like Yesterday Once More (2004). We’re here just to have a good time, not buy the on-screen drama, and this absence of trying-too-hardness gives the film’s movement a more energetic and enjoyable tone. Sparrow is almost a musical without any song and dance. Xavier Jamaux and Fred Avril’s very exuberant score calls to mind Michel Legrand and Nino Rota, and the film itself, despite its title loosely being translated to “Pickpocket,” has more in common with the sly, knowing tone and pizazz of the original The Thomas Crown Affair, rather than Bresson’s equally formalist pickpocket masterpiece.

The plot is a tossaway and a perfect motivator for the film’s great motion. A small gang of pickpockets headed by Simon Lam are each approached by a gorgeous woman (Kelly Lin), who beguiles, attracts, foils, and frustrates each one in turn, seducing the entire group without them knowing, circling around each and using their intrigue and arousal to get the gang to commit a crime for her. Yet it is not the crimes themselves that get To’s meticulous vision—unlike Fuller or Bresson, we barely see the actual mechanics of the thieving—but rather that sense of fluid, controlled movement and action. We do not see the pockets picked, but rather the subtlety with which it is done, wallets lifted with ease, victims circled calmly, pants and purses nicked with a swift razor sound cue.

The attraction of this motion is the key to the film and perhaps To’s oeuvre on the whole. Two enthralling, endless sequences are made up of only the simplest of slow-motion: in one, the exchange of a cigarette in a fast convertible, the other that of rain, glances, suits, and umbrellas in a heavy downpour. The latter is one of To’s greatest directorial triumphs, truly a musical number with the dance being that of the edit, the drop and fall of the water, of black on black bodies jostling at night in the rain.

Sparrow is, of course, far from this abstract. The ease of the script’s plotting, the combination of good humor and posturing nonchalance of To’s male actors, and Kelly Lin’s surprisingly intriguing performance as the magnetic femme are what gives the warm blood to To’s magnificent direction. All the more “classical” is this director for having one of his smallest films be one of his best.

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