Sparrow Review

The Film

Watching the latest film from a director who is on top of his form is a real pleasure. In writing about Johnnie To, I think I have shown how much joy his work has given me by throwing around comparisons with people like John Woo and the great Jean Pierre Melville. It is the latter comparison which seems most appropriate as To has been showing his mastery over the crime movie genre, much as Melville did, by deconstructing it and creating films less guided by story than by an elusive style and spirit.

The comparison doesn't end there. As Ginette Vincendeau points out in her excellent book, An American in Paris, Melville was most interested in the company of men in his best films. To has also shared this obsession, raising brotherhood and male bonding to quasi religious heights in films like Exiled and The Mission. Now with Sparrow, To indulges himself in the delicious romantic competition between four men who form a gang of pickpockets and hustlers, all chasing the same girl.
The subject of their attentions is the truly beautiful Kelly Lin. And her will o' the wisp charms proves too much for this bunch of hardened conmen as they each fall under her spell. The bounds of brotherhood are forgotten and after each meets this wonderful woman they are smiling like idiots lost in a world of their own. This interplay between Lin and each of the four gang members is so light and intimate that it may qualify as the most erotic thing you have seen for some time. I still have the balloon in the lift sequence in my head, and the cigarette she shares with Simon Yam is a near scandalous exchange.

This opening courtship of the gang is intercut with longing shots of the Hong Kong skyline and underlined by the most playful and sensuous soundtrack. If it hadn't been for the director's love of crane shots, then I would have thought I was watching early Jean-Luc Godard as it is the Nouvelle Vague that all of this most definitely recalls - swap Paris for Hong Kong, swap Brasseries for Breakfast bars and keep that frothy joy of living.
Of course, romance meets a sticky end and the film moves into a hustling showdown as its title's connotations are deepened. The bird which flies into Simon Yam's cage comes to contrast with the freedom seeking Lin, who for all her elegance is spliced to shady businessman and crime kingpin Fu. The gang attempt to win her freedom, represented by her passport, in an elaborate con but find that Fu is aware of them and they are easily defeated.

A challenge is laid down to get final possession of the passport and the film finishes in an orgy of pickpocketing directed in a fashion not unlike a musical, with rhythmic edits, co-ordinated and synchronised moves, and the same delicious tone that began the film. The free-wheeling islanders give Fu a run for his money and the whole affair considers whether "a gilded cage is still a cage".
Now this tale of a beautiful bird that wants to be free and the islanders who will fight for that right against an established power may have a sense of allegory about it. This may be the kind of gentle political point that sometimes sneaks under a censor's radar, but I also think that this tale of freedom from outdated discipline is a creative and personal fable as well. Ever since To has freed himself of the rigours of faithful screenplays and shooting schedules, his work has deepened and become much more genuine, spontaneous, and emotionally strong.

Deceptively complex and emotionally resonant, Sparrow is a flighty film that may seem like inconsequential fluff at first. Further viewing should be enough to convince those who saw only superficiality that there is much more here than whimsy. 2008 has seen two great films from To and this is the better one, making it for me the finest work from any director this year.

Transfer and Sound

Unsurprisingly, the visual presentation of this film seems very strong here. It's sharp with deep rich blacks and has an impressive range of colour, complemented by a fine level of detail and natural edges. Around the release of his previous film, the HK blu-ray was criticised for being too bright and the Eureka/MOC disc had a more appropriate and slightly darker look which suited To's usual visuals better. Sparrow is though both a tonally and visually brighter film than Mad Detective and the treatment here could be a bit too bright in the night-time sequences but this transfer is very, very good.
The sound options include standard def 5.1 mixes in Cantonese and Mandarin, and, impressively, two HD options - an uncompressed 7.1 track and a DTS HD MA 5.1 option. Both of these latter tracks down mixed on my system but they still sounded rather special for what our head honcho has described as "a sonically arresting" film. Both sound clear, crisp and make ample use of the surround channels for effects and atmospherics. Dialogue is clean and well mixed and the music soundtrack is delightfully reproduced.

Discs and Special Features

This is happily a region free disc with the main film supported by well translated English subs. Less cheery is the news that outside of the trailer, these are the only English options available here. This is a shame as we get four interviews of leading cast and To, a press conference, a gala premiere, and a very chipper sounding making of featurette all encoded using the AVC MPEG 4 codec.

The menu is relatively simple but not very English friendly and the main feature takes up 19.7 GB of the 22.1 GB of this disc that has been used.


My film of the year and I suppose we might hope that Eureka look to release this film with better language options as they did with Mad Detective earlier this year. If so, you may want to wait to purchase it but, from my perspective, not owning a copy of the film is quite impossible and this is a really fine treatment which To fans should hunt down quickly.

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out of 10

Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:24:35

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