Thing that you have to remember about Johnnie To sometimes is that there is more than one Johnnie To. There's the To that makes tough, brilliant, and purely cinematic action like P.T.U., THE BIG HEAT, and EXILED; there's also a very commercial To that makes unabashedly audience-friendly pictures with Andy Lau like LOVE ON A DIET and YESTERDAY ONCE MORE, while there's a more experimental and risk-taking To who makes hard-to-categorize films like RUNNING ON KARMA and THROW DOWN. In an odd way, all three are on display in SPARROW, his latest (it opened in Hong Kong just last month) that represents something of an end to what I can't help but think has been an extraordinary run of films that possibly no other director has touched this decade. It's very slick and commercial, but also incredibly stylish and beautiful and heartfelt, personal even. SPARROW is unquestionably an entertainment, but not necessarily a mainstream one and not really as frivolous as one may think at first. Nothing is ever easy with Johnnie To.
I have to hand it to Grady Hendrix of the NY Asian Film Festival (and Kaiju Shakedown) when he described SPARROW by saying, "Johnnie To woke up in love this morning", because that's pretty much a perfect summation of it. Making an unabashedly romantic film about Hong Kong pickpockets (once again starring To regular Simon Yam, who just gets better and better) is something one would have expected of Melville or Lelouche, but it comes as no surprise when you consider To's acknowledged respect to many of the French masters (his next film is supposed to be a remake of LE CERCLE ROUGE to star Chow Yun-Fat and Tim Roth) in some of his earlier works. SPARROW reminds one of John Woo's ONCE A THIEF, although not quite as insanely fun; in fact, ONCE A THIEF is probably the perfect companion piece to SPARROW, a love letter to French cinema on one hand, but a purely Hong Kong film on another. The film is also a love letter to Hong Kong itself, which To makes look as inviting as most any other filmmaker has in a long time (Hong Kong is still at the top of my most desired vacation spots), and it's a love letter to love itself, to falling in it and becoming consumed by it enough to go out on a limb in ways you usually try to avoid. It's easy to call SPARROW a piece of fluff, and there's no question that's true, but it's a substancial piece of fluff, a fun and airy frolic that is supposed to capture that sensation that love is indeed a wonderful thing and what the hell is wrong with getting caught up in that?
So, I'm perfectly down with what To is trying to do and I truly dig just watching To do his thing and have his fun, which can certainly be infectious. But I do have to say that SPARROW eventually falls short in the story department, though not tragically so. A filmmaker can coast on a vibe for only so long, so once you've settled into it and are starting to come out, you're realizing that maybe To hasn't quite figured all this out for himself, either. The plot doesn't always go into satisfactory directions, and some comical sidesteps (including one that puts one member of the cast in drag) feel more like humor meant to appeal to the Chinese market. But To is a master of the third act, and SPARROW ends with a beautiful set piece that finds two groups of pickpockets challenging each other in a rainstorm that saves the picture and is a really wonderful thing to simply sit back and watch. Hearing that To spent three years shooting SPARROW off and on makes me suspect that To wasn't as interested in story that he was about mood, but SPARROW's finale proves that he unquestionably knew what he wanted. A bit more clarity of vision could have made SPARROW a true classic, but for what it is, it's a feast for To fans, and this is one fan who is unquestionably stuffed with To-ey goodness.