Hong Kong — A Love Story without an Actual Story
by Mar Sydymanov
Johnnie To’s “Sparrow” (2008) is everything except an overly masculine, die-hard gangster film for which the director is known for. “Sparrow” is a romanticising portrait of Hong Kong at its best. The cinematic homage is an associative, photographic, anecdotal and most of all episodic film. This becomes explicitly apparent looking at the underlying plot structure: four successful pickpockets individually meet a mysterious woman who is a) as good or even better in pickpocketing than all of them combined, b) a femme fatale who knows about her effect on men and c) in a Stockholm Syndrom-esque relationship with a major pickpocket boss who keeps her close to him by withholding her passport in a safe. She, the irresistible Chung Chun Lei, played by Taiwanese actress Kelly Lin, enters the lives of these four men and brings along trouble to their day-to-day stealing routine. In the end the four men manage to surpass the pickpocket boss in a final street pickpocketing-duel and force him to release Chung Chun Lei as a debt of honour. Thus, by handing out the passport to her she is free to leave Hong Kong for good.
As fragmented as this plot summary appears, as fragmented or rather episodic it actually is. The film jumps from one scene to another, leaving logical gaps in-between. Magic, coincidence and a deus ex machina here and there drive the story forward. Despite the lack of coherence in narration, To manages to orchestrate a set of aesthetic scenes which show the idealised version of a charming Hong Kong in present time. Where aesthetic takes over, the plot becomes secondary. This is especially convenient for the characters who don’t need to develop by any means. They are and they stay one-dimensional with each of their specific set of attributes: the woman is an attractive young female in need (damsel in distress, anyone?); the four pickpockets have each one distinctive position in the group and a corresponding attribute. There is the leader/good guy, the second-in-command/gambler, the comic-relief/the chubby one and the whippersnapper/comic relief #2/the driver/the hotshot. Lastly, there is the pickpocket underground boss who has somewhat a soft spot in his heart and only wants to be loved (but can’t express his need).
Taking in the lack of coherent narration and the one-dimensional characters, To seems to aim for the creation of a feeling rather than a cohesive story. One could conclude that “Sparrow” shares more features with a musical than a caper movie. And indeed Johnny To stated that the cinematic showdown was initially planned to be a musical sequence but due to budget limits couldn’t be realised as such.
Nevertheless, even without the singing and dancing, the film is told as light-heartedly as a musical rendition of it would have probably looked like. This genuine happy-go-lucky vibe becomes already apparent in the first scenes of the film. It all starts with Kei (Simon Yam), the head of the pickpocket team, in his apartment getting ready for another day’s labour. He gets interrupted in his morning routine by a curious sparrow which flies through the window and lands on the apartment floor. He gently catches the bird and throws it out of the window. Moments later however, the sparrow returns and conjures a smile on Kei’s face. The title screen follows and we see Kei on his bicycle on his way Downtown set to music somewhere between easy-listening Jazz and Swing from the 1960s.
Despite all that, Sparrow is not a witless film. Where it might lack complex character composition, another protagonist gets all the eclectic makeover needed. This is the story of Hong Kong as a protagonist. The city takes on its role by setting up various rhythms and moods each time it controls the pedestrian’s flow with the stop & go of its traffic lights; pushing the emotional states of the main characters by forcing them to go up & down on its hilly streets and into its shady back alleys; by providing the finale with a never-ending thick rain. Hong Kong is more than just a city. It is the entirety of its iconic objects: the double decker trams, the red taxis, the green and red mail boxes, the crowds of people, the omnipresent construction zones and so much more. To puts great effort in displaying a multifaceted image of the city he loves. In a way he follows a tradition of love declarations for iconic cities such as Fellini did in La Dolce Vita for Rome, Wang’s / Auster’s Smoke / Blue in the Face for New York City (to be precise: Brooklyn) or for Paris in the anthology film Paris, je t’aime.
Furthermore, Johnny To creates and addresses a collective memory of Hong Kong by portraying it intermedially. Besides the moving picture(s), To includes photographs which Kei takes throughout the film. All photographs focus on Hong Kong’s architecture and inhabitants.
The photographs suggest the authentic side to To’s homage. It is as if each one declares: “This is how Hong Kong actually looked like in 2008. Remember it!” It is notable that the photographs as well as the film depict the traditional and the modern sides of the city’s architecture. To manages to blend these two aspects together, thus paying respect to the multilayered nature of Hong Kong where history and heritage, progress and the present blend all together.
Architecture is very prominent in Sparrow. To stated that he wanted to show appreciation for Hong Kong’s unique mixture of architecture. An architecture that is a mosaic of artefacts from a multitude of historic periods. And indeed, it almost feels like that every scene somehow eludes to the diverse face of the city, be it the expressionistic design of staircases or the photographic framing of the cityscape.
Overall, the film feels staged in each of its loosely connected scenes. It is as if the protagonists are just mere props for the main character: the city. And this perhaps might be the reason why it feels like a musical. The scenes are individually orchestrated — and to follow the musical analogy here — present each a movement on its own. Combined you get a symphony of a city. This becomes obvious in the showdown when the pickpockets compete with one another in such a composed manner that it almost feels like a ballet.
One could say that Johnny To’s Sparrow is both: less than just a film and more than just a film. On the one hand, it doesn’t entirely follow the rules of conventional cinematic story-telling. It might even, due to this, leave the viewer dissatisfied. On the other hand, watching the film with the premise that it is a cinematic postcard or a visualized (collective) memory of a city, one might feel great satisfaction. It is as if Johnny To guides us through his city on a private tour and we the viewers are invited to lean back and enjoy the diverting ride. There is nothing wrong with a guided tour and sometimes one doesn’t even need to tell a story with it.