The worldwide reputation of Johnnie To, who has sat at the head of the table of Hong Kong genre directors since about the late 1990s, comes mostly from his perfectly formulated crime and gangster films. These are embellished pulp-existentialist stories of men with missions, ticking clocks, cornered killers. On the more out-there projects—like 2001’s Fulltime Killer, which was kind of like his take on the gratuitous post-modern, post-Tarantino, video-store-addled hit man movie—he’ll sometimes share directing credit with Wai Ka-Fai, his longtime screenwriter and producing partner. But even in those joint efforts, you can clearly make out the fingerprint of “the To touch.” His staging has the cleverness and precision of a heist, yet it still has a very rich range: deep-focus master shots, fuzzy extreme close-ups, wide-angle lenses, telephoto lenses, overhead shots, zooms, crane shots, dolly shots, operatic touches, notes of voyeurism, choreographed set pieces, bald-faced movie references, procedural details, theatrical sound stage sets, authentic street locations. For whatever reason, the one thing he’s never had much of an interest in is complicated Steadicam setups, which is how American directors like to show that they mean business.
But the Johnnie To film that I want to tell you about is Sparrow, which is only superficially a crime movie—really, it’s closer in some ways to the romances and romantic comedies that make up the other substantial (but less exported) part of his long, diverse filmography. It’s something that To shot over a few years, during breaks between better-known projects like Election and Exiled, and among its many oddball charms is the fact that it’s set in an underworld, with a cast of crooks and professional lowlifes, but features no guns; you might even say that it pushes the setting to extremes of artificiality, even by To’s already high standards. It’s fairy-tale-like in its simplicity. The main character, played by the often wonderful Simon Yam, is a Hong Kong master pickpocket—very overtly a ’50s Cary Grant type, right down to the poplin suit—who dabbles in photography when he isn’t leading a crew of expert thieves; they all fall for the same mystery woman (Kelly Lin) and set out to free her from the clutches of an aging and surprisingly avuncular crime boss (Lo Hoi-Pang). That is more or less it; Sparrow isn’t a long movie or a very deep one. The title—local slang for a pickpocket—speaks to all of its little feathery, birdy, chirping qualities.
Of course, flights of fancy of this type often outline a self-portrait. To, for all his bona fides as a straightforward craftsman, has never shied away from showing his love for his favorite movies and movie-makers; the closest American analog might be the Quentin Tarantino of Jackie Brown, though the two retro-leaning genre directors have surprisingly little in common. The tributes can get pretty elaborate: Vengeance and Throw Down pay extended homage to, respectively, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï and Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata; The Story Of My Son is basically an uncredited remake of Luigi Comencini’s Incompreso; Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, the most accomplished conventional rom-com of the 2000s, quotes Vertigo and Playtime without missing a beat; and the climax of Sparrow itself riffs on Jacques Demy’s musical drama The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. So perhaps there the filmmaker put more than a little of himself into his freewheeling pickpocket hero, who snatches a little here and a little there in style, leading a crew that’s almost as tightly knit as To’s unit of recurring collaborators and company players.
On its own, self-reflexivity is about as surface-level as it gets in art—the paraph under an artist’s signature. And I’d be lying if I said that I think that Sparrow has some kind of hidden agenda. Actually, what makes it so valuable is the masterly lightness of its touch; Hollywood isn’t capable of producing movies this purely focused on pleasure. (However, it should be noted that, for a movie with such vague stakes, it’s surprisingly suspenseful and sensitive, which is a credit to To’s sense of form.) The fact that Lin’s character charms the thieves one by one is really just an opportunity for To and his regular creative team—cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung, editor David M. Richardson, and composer Xavier Jamaux, who collaborated on the lush score with Fred Avril—to concoct a string of almost wordless teases. This eventually leads to one of the only purely erotic sequences in To’s body of work, in which Yam’s and Lin’s characters share a cigarette on a leisurely drive in a vintage Mercedes convertible. The narrative purpose of this or any other sequence in Sparrow is secondary at best. It’s all about the musicality that’s the essence of To’s style. Anyone who’s interested in the nuts and bolts of film craft would do well to study the guy.
It can be tough to separate form from theme in his movies—the dynamic arrangement of characters, power dynamics, directions, and angles that is his main visual strategy and the underlying principle of the plots concocted for him by his brain trust of screenwriters. Thus, you end up with Drug War, a cat-and-mouse thriller movie about a mainland narcotics cop and a trafficker-turned-informant composed in abruptly reversing set pieces; Election, in which the machinations of triad mobsters steep both the plot and frame in thick shadows; the recent Three, a claustrophobic ticking-clock thriller set in one building with a limited color scheme; or this movie, whose leisureliness, obsession with beauty, and fondness for its archetypal characters are also its main sources of tension. To is a virtuoso, but not exactly a perfectionist. One thing that fascinated me about his style is the way it’s sprinkled with tiny imperfections—perhaps a wobble in a tracking shot or some lens distortion in the outer edges of the (almost always) anamorphic frame—that make it feel like the movie is being improvised before your very eyes. That, too, is musical.
It makes me think of a very well-worn and undoubtedly apocryphal story about Pablo Picasso. There are many versions of it, though the one I’ve seen the most times has the 20th-century art titan being asked to sketch a dinner guest on a napkin, and then asking for some exorbitant sum, usually a million dollars. The man (or sometimes woman) in the story balks and points out that the sketch was dashed off in a half a minute, to which Picasso responds, “Ah, but it took me 50 years to learn to do that in 30 seconds.” With the exception of the recently un-retired Steven Soderbergh, no American director of roughly the same generation has gotten to be anywhere near as prolific as Johnnie To, and definitely not under the same low-pressure circumstances. This is almost as true of the indie world as it is of Hollywood, and it makes me wonder whether there’s something poisonous in the culture and business of American film, where directors often work in three- to five-year cycles that make it impossible to do anything lightly—a relatively recent development, if you’re taking the history of film as a whole.
Implicit in all this is the idea that masters should only make masterpieces. If you want to see what genius does in its spare time, you have to look elsewhere.