Setting The Caged Bird Free: Sparrow

Setting The Caged Bird Free: Sparrow

Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Terracotta Films 

Release date: 9th May 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 87 min

Year of production: 2008
Language: Cantonese with English subtitles

Director: Johnnie To

Writers: Chan Kin-Chung, Fung Chih-Chiang, Milkyway Creative Team

Cast: Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Lam Kar Tung, Lo Hoi Pang, Law Wing Cheong, Lam Suet

Hong Kong film director and producer Johnnie To borrows a few cues from French New Wave fathers Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut and the Italian Neo Realist director and poineer Vittorio De Sica, for Sparrow, his 2008 film which took him 3 years to complete.

It’s the story of a group of pick-pockets, known as “Sparrows” for the quick and light way they operate, lead by Kei (Simon Yam), whose lives are disrupted by the arrival of a beautiful woman, Chun-Lei (Kelly Lin). Intrigued by her, she leads them into a face-off with a rival gang of pick-pockets and their leader, Mr. Fu (Lo Hoi-Pang), both she’s desperately trying to free herself from.


The two gangs then battle it out to win Chun-Lei on the rain drenched streets and alleyways of Hong Kong in a stunningly choreographed sequence that pays homage to Jacques Demy’s musical Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964). Armed with umbrellas, the fast exchange of property becomes a ballet of catch and release; all while Chun-Lei’s fate hangs in the balance.

Rather than indulging in fast paced and witty dialogue, ala Tarantino, or highly stylised gun sequences, John Woo style, To goes for something else entirely here. It’s more about the mood, and there’s an almost Zen-like quality to the scenes, it drips with poetry; telling us to look deeper and feel the characters’ movements, not just see them. In this way, we see Chun-Lei as the real “sparrow”, not just a thief, but also a caged bird, struggling for freedom.


Simon Yam and Kelly Lin make for a great pairing, each with a natural beauty and playing their parts with elegant restraint. Backed by a smooth and airy soundtrack with elements of jazz, Sparrow is at times whimsical, but the comedic tones of the film fit perfectly with the cinematography which blends the old with the new.

The story itself is very simple, and in this way it reminds me not only of À Bout De Souffle (1960), one of the hallmarks in French New Wave, but also of the Italian classic, Bicycle Thieves (1948). The films highlight petty crime in big cities and do so using uncomplicated stories with compelling characters and styles in storytelling.

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