This year New York's Migrating Forms is presenting a double bill of two Johnnie To films: Running on Karma (2003) and Sparrow (2008). Placed next to each other, they reveal interesting convergences and divergences that help define the dual authorship of To and his frequent collaborator Wai Ka-fai (co-director, and a writer and producer on Running on Karma but not Sparrow). To is both an intellectual and emotional director capable of multifarious expressions. Wai is more cerebral, his projects characterized by conceptually dense and layered narrative detail. In the contrastive yet strikingly parallel endings of Running on Karma and Sparrow, hints of the nuances behind these filmmakers' work becomes evident.
The final sequence of Running on Karma:
The final sequence of Sparrow:
Each of these films arrive at two of the most ecstatic endings in To's cinema, in which the two respective male protagonists, left lonely by the absence of the woman they loved, are consoled by forces of reconciliation. These forces, however, are where the films diverge. Sparrow, a film led by To's characteristic themes of gamesmanship and camaraderie, rests finally on friends, a band of pickpockets led by Kei (Simon Yam), bound by their craft and broken hearts, whereas Running on Karma's cathartic denouement is a spiritual gesture: Big (Andy Lau) walks alone but surefooted, with new purpose, a certain path lying ahead.
Both protagonists must shed something of themselves before reaching these conclusions. Big undergoes a series of transformations, going from monk to a comically ripped stripper to itinerant drifter, each form born of an inability to reconcile himself with karmic order. He can only achieve peace upon breaking free from the cycle of violence that the film presents as perpetual in the world, forgoing vengeance against a murderer. In the closing images pictured above, he once again dons the robes of a monk—but true to Big's eccentricity, smokes a cigarette, an indication that this is not a subservient character change, but the act of the man becoming whole on his own terms. Cecilia Cheung, who plays Big's fated love interest and the catalyst for his new-found serenity, appears one last time, introduced with a gentle dissolve, catching seeds in the wind. The film concludes in effervescence, a coupling of the transitory (the woman, now gone) and the eternal (a sense of karmic continuum).
Sparrow takes a deceptively oblique approach to this idea of acceptance and grace. In an act of noble resignation, the pickpockets who vie for one woman's affection let her go so as to dispel the conflict of their overlapping desires, the significance of this sacrifice evident from the displays of their infatuation. They realize that in their quest to free a woman from her oppressive suitor-cum-captor, she must also be free from their own romantic pursuit. Loneliness is shared, the nominal protagonists and antagonists amicably agree to surrender the fight. The conclusion finds beauty in the companionship of four friends riding one bicycle, unity expressed in wide shot. The playful return of the titular sparrow brings the musical structure of the film to a close. A fleeting moment, love lost, friendships solidified, closing finally with the bird returning to Kei's apartment, the film's whimsy coming full circle.
Running on Karma's transcendent ending encompasses a sense of cosmic balance; Sparrow's lighter final notes articulate a smaller but equally moving abandonment of selfish desire. While these films and their endings are wildly different in thematic scope, they're ultimately guided to harmonious expressions of acceptance. To and Wai are filmmakers who think differently but unite in feeling.