REVIEW: Sparrow (2008)

sparrow_posterKei (Simon Yam) leads a small band of Hong Kong-based pickpockets, while enjoying his off hours taking pictures of the city with a Rolleiflex camera. While taking photographs one afternoon, he captures the image of a woman (Kelly Lin) seemingly on the run – and this draws Kei and his entire team into trouble.

Sparrow is a short, sharp, and wonderfully charming light drama from one of my favourite directors Johnnie To. It is a unique project, shot over a period of three years in between other films; the cast and crew would assemble when they could, partly improvising the film, and slowly building up the story as they went along. When finally released it scored five Hong Kong Film Award nominations (Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Film Score) and won a Golden Horse (Best Cinematography for Cheng Siu-keung). The accolades were all well-deserved: this is a beautifully constructed and hugely charismatic film.

A lot of the appeal is in the cast, all of whom seem to have worked very well thanks to the low pressure, loosely scheduled shoot. Simon Yam is a wonderful lead with a performance that is equally playful and measured. He is immensely likeable despite his criminal career. His three criminal associates work brilliantly too; each under-played but distinctive, including a surprising turn from film director Law Wing-cheung (2 Become 1, Punished).

As the mysterious Chun-lei, Kelly Lin combines levels of cool and quiet desperation. There is a strong flirtatious tone to the character interactions: humorous – although it is ultimately a drama the cast are telling – and sexy – although it never feels sleazy or forced. There is a moment of forced comedy over a male character cross-dressing as a woman, but that feels like more of an issue of time and cultural difference than anything actively offensive.

The musical score by Xavier Jamaux and Fred Avril virtually dances across the screen. There is comparatively little dialogue involved in Sparrow, and so the music winds up doing much of the emotional guidance for audiences. It is a witty and self-aware series of compositions, and as the back-and-forth of the caper opens up it does a long way making the funnier elements succeed. This near-silent treatment really makes the film stand out from its contemporaries: without much in the way of talking, attention is re-directed to the physical performances, the music, and the beautiful photography.

Sparrow‘s award-winning cinematography captures a romanticised Hong Kong that feels particularly warm and inviting. As with every other element, it is rich in a relaxed sense of charm and play. It feels a particularly attractive film in the present context, with China’s National Security Law and a year of social unrest and protest rather taking the shine off Hong Kong for the time being. It has been eight years since its release, and as such Sparrow is beginning to feel particularly nostalgic. It’s a warm, handsome, and utterly welcoming mini-gem.

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