Saturday, June 28, 2008

NYAFF: Sparrow (2008)

For Johnnie To, who consistently directs two (or more) films a year, Sparrow is an anomaly. Taking over three years to make, it has the feel of a sketchbook, filled with ideas too offbeat for his larger productions, they've been tossed around his head until they've been polished to a high sheen. This is a personal project in every way. He filmed it in the spare days between the Elections, Exiled, and Mad Detective, gathering Simon Yam and Kelly Lin to shoot scattered sequences. It's a remarkable run he's on now, but for me, Sparrow is the richest. It reveals To's priorities - which are luxuriantly visual.

The plot is minimal, but every tracking shot tells its own story. Simon Yam is the eldest of a group of pickpocketing brothers, each of whom is drawn into the enigmatic web of Kelly Lin, a sulking femme fatale yearning to break free from her aging sugar daddy, who happens to be a thief himself. Kelly spins this web in a series of breathtaking duets. With Simon, it begins with the eponymous sparrow, who flutters into his apartment to the accompaniment of a chirping, grand Legrand-like score. Later, he tours Hong Kong on his bike, taking snaps of the passersby with his film camera, and To, a film over DV guy, further identifies himself with Yam by irising his lens to ape Yam's. Narrative is ignored to take some B&W portraits of his city, and Sparrow is in many ways his ode to Hong Kong, whose vertiginous verticals baffle and charm Yam's clan throughout. But then Kelly runs into his frame, trying to escape, so Yam captures her in his camera. A few clicks and she's gone.

She entrances Yam's three brothers in turn: through inhaling endless bottles of wine, seducing a balloon in an elevator, and, above all, smoking. Yam lights a cig in her car, Lin impishly snags it from his lips. An achingly slow slo-mo follows, a blur of lipstick smears and glowingly glamorous close-ups. I swooned out of my seat, so the details are hazy. Let's just say it's pure cinema - emotion delivered by motion. Which is what the whole film is, truly. It hearkens back to Hawks with its male group of professionals and games of "are you good enough". It recalls Demy in its tinkly jazz score, the arrangement of bodies in the frame, and the umbrellas. Except these umbrellas are black, are used as weapons, and are the subject of a finale as transcendent as Demy's parapluies of Cherbourg.

UPDATE: The geniuses over at Tativille have chimed in on Sparrow as well, calling it "a film of unsurpassed tactility". Seconded!

NOTE: Look out for my interview with Johnnie To at IFC News sometime next week. Also: see Ken Jacobs' RAZZLE DAZZLE: The Lost World. It's at Anthology Archives this week, and will blow your goddamn mind.



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