Sparrow (Man jeuk) (2008)

Sparrow (Man jeuk) first published by EyeforFilm, 20 May 2009

“A sparrow flew into my apartment”, says middle-aged, dapperly dressed bicycle enthusiast (and skilled cut-purse) Kei (Simon Yam). “Not sure what it means.”

The obvious answer is that it refers to Kei’s profession, given that the Cantonese word for ‘sparrow’ (man jeuk) is also slang for a talented pickpocket. Kei’s ambitious young lieutenant Bo (Lam Ka Tung), however, suggests that the sparrow is instead a bird of ill omen, signalling “bad luck” to come – and the way that Kei coops up the sparrow also points to the status of the film’s only prominent female character, Chung Chin-lei (Kelly Lin), who is herself something of a caged bird. Which is to say that the meaning of Johnnie To‘s latest feature is, much like that of the bird from which it takes its title, a flighty, mottled thing, always glimpsed on the wing and difficult to pin down.

Kei and his purse-snatching gang – Bo, Sak (Law Wing Cheong) and Mac (Kenneth Cheung) – are each separately approached by the mysterious Chin-lei, who wants to end her relationship with ailing old master pickpocket Mr Fu (Lo Hoi Pang), and sees Kei’s crew as her way out. For all his age and infirmity, however, Fu is a formidable opponent who will not give up Chin-lei lightly, leading to a rain-swept showdown at a Hong Kong street crossing, where a passport – and power – will rapidly change hands.

Two rival armies vie heroically for the possession of a beautiful woman. Though presented by To in a series of elliptical flourishes that reduce the viewer to bamboozled dupe, the plot of Sparrow is in fact very simple, and as ancient as The Iliad. The director, however, is less interested in the mechanics of story (a story that has, after all, been told countless times before) than in the more ineffable workings of style, mood and vibe.

Dialogue and even characterisation are kept to a minimum, as To lets his mise en scène do all the talking – and, perhaps even more surprisingly, the balletic gun- and blade-play that has marked Hong Kong crime flicks in general, and To’s own oeuvre in particular, is here replaced almost entirely with razorsharp fingerwork (matched only by the precision editing).

Whether it is Kei’s immaculate white suit, Chun-lei’s noirish way with a cigarette, the crew’s smooth simultaneous robbing of three separate marks on the street (all shot in a single fluid take), or the climactic slo-mo pickpocketing duel, everything in Sparrow is ruled by elegance – and elegance, as Mr Fu knows all too well, has little room for violent bloodshed.

If there is a recurrent motif in Sparrow, it is the painstakingly achieved transfer of property or tradition. Wallets are shown being passed deftly from pocket to hand and back to pocket. Kei is shown gradually passing down leadership responsibility to the junior Bo, much as Fu will also ultimately cede his dominance to the next generation. In keeping with this theme, To’s film – with its jazzy European score, its gentlemen thieves, its Jacques Demy-style action choreography (with umbrellas), and its exquisitely staged scenes of purse-snatching reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) – casts a respectful eye back to the traditions of past cinema (especially French cinema), even as it renests these traditions on new shores.

The result is a work as breezy and charming as it is enigmatic. The brisk directorial sleight-of-hand that dominates Sparrow might leave you somewhat bewildered, but you will be too awestruck by its cool craftsmanship to feel in any way robbed.

strap: Johnnie To’s breezy noir offers a swordless, gunless clash of the pickpockets where craftsmanship, elegance and charm win out

© Anton Bitel