Johnnie To’s “Sparrow” – 2008 NYAFF Review

Johnnie To, best known in the West for such gangster sagas as the “Election” films and “Exiled,” opts for a delightful change of pace in the comic caper “Sparrow,” a stylish film with a distinct Gallic air.

To regular Simon Yam is Kei, the leader of a gang of pickpockets who each cross paths with Chun Lei (Kelly Lin), seeking to escape the clutches of Mr. Fu (Lo Hoi-pang), a crime boss who keeps her on a tight tether, with a large group of henchmen who shadow her every movement. Chun Lei, making full use of her serial seduction, manages to unwittingly enlist each of the pickpockets separately in her unsuccessful attempts to elude her benefactor/lover/captor. However, they are all discovered and severely beaten by Mr. Fu’s men, leading to a hilarious scene in which all four of the now crippled pickpockets try to corner Chun Lei on the street, and trap her on an elevator with two men carrying a glass tank.

After he learns the truth behind Chun Lei’s deception, Kei enlists his criminal cohorts into a showdown with Mr. Fu to battle for Chun Lei’s freedom. Kei is driven to this not only by his obvious yet unspoken attraction to Chun Lei, but by his professional pride. When Mr. Fu mocks Kei and his gang’s pick-pocketing prowess, he simply cannot let it stand. “I’ve got to show him what I’ve got,” Kei tells his men. Kei indeed shows Mr. Fu what he has in a wonderfully-choreographed scene in the rain, with all the participants carrying black umbrellas, a lyrical denouement as free of the usual violence of many of To’s films as it visually elegant.

Remarkably for such a light, airy confection, “Sparrow” was three years in the making. To’s loose, jazzy mode is echoed by Xavier Jamaux and Fred Anvil’s Latin-flavored score. His film is essentially a musical minus the songs; this is reinforced by the fact that a dance choreographer was employed for the pick-pocketing sequences. An early scene of Kei and his men in action is a masterfully blocked and executed sequence that is a lighthearted counterpart to the famous scene of pickpockets at work in Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket.” (The film’s Cantonese title, in fact, is a slang term that loosely translates as “Pickpocket.”) All throughout the film, To indulges his great talent for depicting physical movement in a dreamlike yet precise manner. He also excels in sustaining a mesmerizing mood, making a simple scene such as Kelly Lin and Simon Yam exchanging cigarettes a deliciously erotic pas de deux.

“Sparrow” may not be the most substantial film ever made, but as an immensely entertaining divertissement, it comes up aces.

“Sparrow” screens at IFC Center on June 26 and July 2 at the New York Asian Film Festival. For ticket information, go to the Subway Cinema Web site.