Sunday, August 3, 2008

Up, Up And Away

I've never been to Hong Kong. Well, I've had a stopover in Chep Lap Kok airport, but all i could do was look out the large windows at the hills outside. Couldn't step out to see the city. I had another chance to visit Hong Kong, but at the last minute, SARS broke out and all my plans had to be cancelled. Friends who have gone to the island before say it's a shopping paradise, and it's always busy, crammed with people.

But for Johnnie To, there's a romantic side to the city and the island. Sparrow captures that perfectly, alternating between the old and the new, and sometimes mixing them up. I don't believe Hong Kong has ever been this beautiful on film, or at least this endearing. The slick and the rustic exist together, so do the archaic and the modern, the past and the present. There's a sense of a temporal mash-up not just in terms of the visuals of the city, but also the movie's characters.

Simon Yam's Kei could easily be a Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly or Clark Gable. The opening sequence of him in his apartment sees him reaching towards a sparrow that had flown into his room. From his graceful, choreographed movement, I really thought he was going to break into a dance, and song perhaps. But he never does, throughout the entire film. He's always close to it though, and together with the very characteristic music, gives the film the feel of a 60s French musical. Closer to the truth is that it's as if Alain Delon is in a Hollywood musical.

Certainly, on the crime side of the story, it would seem the spirit of Jean-Pierre Melville is operating. The sense of style is strong, the capers skilfully drawn out with the coolness of a Melville heist. Four professional pickpockets, led by Kei, operate daily within the city, but their work is disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious beautiful woman (Kelly Lin). It turns out that the woman is a Mainlander trying to free herself from the clutches of her wealthy, aged lover.

The four unwittingly get drawn into the mess, and this leads to a nighttime showdown in the rain, with umbrellas and sharp objects. It could all turn deadly, if this were a gritty crime thriller, but this is really To's love letter to his beloved Hong Kong, and romance even creeps into this final showdown. The victory is really the cinematographer's. Working with only dark tones, and at night and drenched in water, the beauty of every frame still leaps out. It must have been some really clever lighting at work there.

The editing of that scene and the scenes of pocket-picking is another proof of the painstaking editing that To gives a lot of attention to, like the street chase scene in Mad Detective.

But the winning point here is the stark simplicity of it all, with minimal dialogue and a story so uncomplicated, it's almost like a dream. Like Throw Down, this is pure cinematic storytelling, refined down to the point where the camera is the only one doing all the talking.

Ultimately, it's a story about home, or going home. The freedom outside can be attractive, the wide, open sky inviting, but in the end we all want a place to go back to. For the sparrow, it's not necessarily up in a tree. It could be on a rafter in the corner of an apartment's ceiling. Freedom is not a place, nor can it be drawn by boundaries. Freedom is what you do; life's what you make it.

In Sparrow, freedom is lost and regained, and home is where the heart is. And for Johnnie To, through his loving portrayal of his city, shows us that his heart is firmly in Hong Kong and proudly on his sleeve.

COPYRIGHT POLICY: It's simple: Steal my stuff and I'll kick you in the nuts