Sparrow is a very different Johnnie To film in that it is very lighthearted in its approach and fairly free of conflict. There are the usual To themes of brotherhood and familial bonding but the theme is presented quite a bit differently here. The usual conflict driven themes of brotherhood is replaced by a more lively and slightly more combative relationship between the more low key characters. This is mainly due to a basic lack of serious life threatening situations that are generally present in most To films and so the characters behave a bit more like actual family then family driven together by serious desperation and an instinct to survive.
The pickpocket characters led by the legendary Simon Yam as Kei live out a fairly carefree existence as pickpockets. Kei is very artistically driven and wanders the streets in a dreamy fashion photograph anything that catches his interest with his retro camera. One day a sparrow flies into his loft and refuses to leave. He thinks it might be a sign of good luck but his cohorts aren't too sure and feel it might be the sign of something very bad.
As if on cue, a mysterious woman (Kelly Lin) pops into the frame of a shot being lined up by Kei. Kei is enchanted by her seemingly distressful situation and she seems concerned by his interest. Then slowly the same woman pops floats into each and everyone of the gang's lives looking fairly different and perfectly catering to each of their weaknesses which she exploits to the fullest in order to set them up for a slight beating. But she wants something more from them then just a lesson in who not to pickpocket. She needs them for a special job that only they can fulfill.
Kelly Lin quite obviously is the metaphorical sparrow in all of this but in more than just the obvious flitting in and out of people's lives much like the actual bird in Kei's apartment. She is a foreigner to Hong Kong and wants nothing but to get out and get back to her modern life. As pickpockets are a dying profession, Kei and his gang represent the old Hong Kong that wishes it could maintain the quaint old way of doing things. But try though they might, old Hong Kong, much like the pickpockets, are fully entranced with the mysterious new ways and what it could possibly bring them and so they are inexorably drawn in despite their suspicions and reservations.
This film is quite obviously a love letter to the old Hong Kong that is disappearing as old buildings are replaced with the new. The neighborhoods that are heavily featured are poor but quaint with their cobblestone roads and worn down architecture. The colors are incredibly warm and inviting, even the metal and washed out whites are compelling. To seems to go to great lengths to perfectly compose and frame shots heavily featuring the objects in which the characters interact. A simple wandering of a character into a side street becomes compelling as you notice an ambient pedestrian wearing a color that perfectly frames the shot by complimenting the color of the post boxes on the opposite side of the shot.
The music greatly compliments the romantic nature of the film as well. A mixture of hip retro '60s western and traditional Chinese strings further cements the slow merging of the old and new in Hong Kong. The minimal dialogue and slowed down pace of many scenes also appears to be a bit of an homage to the old symbol ladened Hollywood romances in which, in lieu of actual contact, every movement and eye glance further intensifies the interaction between the characters. The scene between Kelly and Simon in which they share a cigarette is just a beautiful thing to watch.
Unfortunately all this desire of To's to bring in all sorts of elements that he has admired from other sources coupled with a short running time means that there is very little story going on here. And what story there is going on is very light and very lacking in any real conflict. Because of this in the end I felt the precedings a bit unengaging and I really desired to know the characters a bit better before it all came to a screeching halt in a beautifully filmed non musical tribute to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In simple terms it's an art over substance sort of film although there is a great deal to be admired in the aesthetics that are presented. It's Johnnie To's guilty pleasure film basically and if you don't go in expecting sturm und drang and guns a blazin' you might just have a great time.