Making Waves – Navigators of Hong Kong Cinema
JOHNNIE WITHOUT A GUN – Tribute to Johhnie To


文雀 (Man jeuk)

Hong Kong, 2008, 87’, Cantonese
Directed by: Johnnie To
Screenplay: Milkyway Creative Team, Chan Kin-chung, Fung Chih-chiang
Photography (color): Cheng Siu-keung
Editing: David Richardson
Music: Xavier Jamaux, Fred Avril
Producer: Johnnie To
Cast: Simon Yam (Kei), Kelly Lin (Chung Chun-lei), Lam Ka-tung (Bo), Law Wing-cheong
(Sak), Kenneth Cheung (Mac), Lo Hoi-pang (Fu Kim-tong), Lam Suet (Lung)

Date of First Release in Territory: June 19th, 2008


Playful and always eager to please its audience, Johnnie To’s 2008 pickpocket caper Sparrow reached cinemas as a breezy diversion from the director’s darker acclaimed thrillers. Shot as a passion project across a three-year period, with production firing up in breaks between making films like Exiled (2006) and Mad Detective (2007), To’s jazzy escapade brimmed with sleek choreography and plenty of hometown pride.
Sparrow opens with a graceful showcase of its protagonists: a gang of four thieves who glide through the streets as they pinch wallets. Life’s clearly a fine one for the leisurely team, who otherwise spend their days lounging around an old-style local café, playing the tables at underground gambling dens or simply bicycling around town, camera in hand and snapping photos of passers-by. 
But good times for the pickpockets (“sparrows” in Cantonese slang) risk coming to an end when an enigmatic mainland woman steps into the picture. Always on the run from mysterious men in suits, Chung Chun-lei (Kelly Lin) is photographed on the street by Kei (Simon Yam), one of the thieves, and starts to quietly move into the gang’s circle. As she approaches the men one by one, Chung seems wise to their game and shows expertise at giving people the slip. Just what is she playing at, and who are the men that are tailing her?
Once the scene is set for classy pickpocket showdowns and duels of wits, To and his team settle into a string of fun set pieces, at times witty and ingenious, at others completely off the wall. Random props like balloons and fish tanks are worked into the action, while sudden mood-drenched moments bring on a gleefully abstract edge. Qualities of classic musicals also make an appearance, with touches of old-style European and Hollywood staging playing out in Hong Kong settings. While the characters don’t break out into song – To would head into that territory later with Office (2015) and Chasing Dream (2019) – throughout it all the music of Xavier Jamaux and Fred Avril bounces along and propels the story, their tunes switching between lounge and exotica, jazz and blues, but returning to a catchy refrain.
Simon Yam charms as the composed central character from the very first scene, when he’s beige-suited and all smiles as a stray bird flies into his home. Lam Ka-tung, Kenneth Cheung and Law Wing-cheong round out the gang as comic sidekicks and help bring out To’s familiar brotherhood themes, while Kelly Lin and Lo Hoi-pang, in a curious old-guard character, are also pleasures to watch. 
Beyond capturing high-concept and neatly choreographed games, To’s film lavishes attention on Hong Kong itself. Sparrow’s shoot was already under way when Hongkongers became more concerned in local heritage and their changing city, especially in light of the government’s prominent and unpopular 2006-08 demolitions of the old Central Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier, and the filmmakers made pointed efforts to record older sights on celluloid. Viewed today, 15 years on, there’s a nostalgia kick for Hong Kong viewers spotting the film’s now-vanished landmarks, from a snooker hall’s neon sign glowing over a rain-soaked street in Kwun Tong to a vintage café in Tin Hau. By the time black-and-white photos of ageing parts of districts like Sheung Wan appear beside the final credits, Sparrow makes clear it’s as much a celebration of Hong Kong as it is sheer cinematic entertainment.


BIO & FILMOGRAPHY: see Life Without Principle

Tim Youngs
Film director: Johnnie TO
Year: 2008
Running time: 80'
Country: Hong Kong
27/04 - 02:00 PM
Visionario, Via Asquini 33
27-04-2023 14:00 27-04-2023 15:20Europe/Rome Sparrow Far East Film Festival Visionario, Via Asquini 33CEC Udine
ONLINE in Italy until the end of the Festival