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Nicknamed "sparrow", a pickpocket lifts wallets from unsuspecting targets with elegance and grace, like a sparrow fluttering its wings through a congested cityscape. Fai and his 3 associates lead carefree and playful lives as pickpockets. When the mysterious Beauty charms them into stealing a key, the sparrows worry about what they're getting themselves into, but accept the job when Beauty threatens to take her own life. Mystery builds as the sparrows go forward with their plan. At the rendezvous point, Hollywood Inn, Beauty and the key disappear altogether. It seems Beauty carries many secrets, including her relationship with the reclusive powerful tycoon, Mr. Yen. The sparrows are playing with fire, although this knowledge hardly lessens their intrigue.
For more about Sparrow and the Sparrow Blu-ray release, see Sparrow Blu-ray Review published by Dr. Svet Atanasov on October 15, 2008 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Ka Tung Lam, Suet Lam, Wing-cheong Law
Director: Johnnie To
» See full cast & crew
Sparrow Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Dr. Svet Atanasov, October 15, 2008
Nominated for Golden Bear at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, Johnnie To's latest film, "Sparrow" (2008), arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Universe Laser & Video Co. Beautifully-lensed, almost to the point of making it impossible to concentrate on the story, terrifically-acted and complimented by a moody soundtrack, this one is certainly not to be missed.
A group of pickpockets - Kei (Simon Yam), Bo (Lam Ka-tung), Sak (Law Wing-cheong) and Mac (Kenneth Cheung) - are forced to prove their game when an elegant "sparrow" (Kelly Lin) outplays them all. She also puts in motion a complicated scheme that should set her free from her sugar- daddy Mr. Fu (Lo Hoi-pang). The four friends bite the bait and things get out of control immediately.
Mr. Fu, however, has a plan of his own. He is well aware of the "sparrow" and her game and wishes to teach everyone a lesson. When the four pickpockets finally confront him he is annoyed by their lack of respect. The two parties agree on a decisive duel where the winner gets to keep the "sparrow".
Sparrow is likely to divide a lot of To's hardcore fans but his latest might well be his best work yet. Elegant, moody, and with a script overflowing with creative twists the film is undoubtedly a departure from the director's preference for triad action. On the other hand, the marquee slow-motion camerawork is still a key factor behind many of the best sequences granting Sparrow a look that many will find familiar.
The stylish, at times dreamy, vistas from Hong Kong tucked within a misleading script tiptoeing between action and romance transform Sparrow into an unusual cinematic experience. A strong sense of nostalgia also overlaps with a glitzy contemporary look that seems to be favored by To in a lot of his recent works (Exiled incorporates spaghetti-western with triad overtones in a distinctively modern piece of action cinema).
The subtle message Sparrow arguably carries, however, is probably much more controversial than the actual film. Why? The bird motif is easy to read through (the elegant pickpocket is quickly linked to the tiny bird that enters Kei's suite during the prologue) within the context of the story. But if taken out of context one could argue that it has a lot to do with Hong Kong's rather ambiguous and uncertain position in modern China - just like caged birds occasionally return after being freed to the outside world Hong Kong is now looking back at a familiar past when a different type of ordinance was in existence. I personally am unsure whether Sparrow reaches that far but To's distinctively nostalgic tone may empower many to argue that it does.
French duo Fred Avril and Xavier Jamaux (Mad Detective) are once again on board and their intoxicating soundtrack is a major reason why Sparrow works so incredibly well. The moody downtempo tunes are exceptionally well composed evoking parallels with the chic Buddha Bar series while also injecting a distinctive retro vibe 50s and 60s HK classics popularized. Smoking in a Coupe and Simon's ride in particular sound terrific.
Finally, film editor David Richardson who has contributed on a great many of To's films also does a splendid job with the director's sporadically overwhelming fascination with long, protracted, camera shots. The final "duel" between the pickpockets is a prime example of terrific film editing as it is both notably original as well as uncharacteristically beautiful to behold. It stretches quite a bit but it never drags the story, on the contrary, it grants Sparrow a deserving finale.
Sparrow Blu-ray, Video Quality
Presented in an aspect ratio of 2.37:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC, and granted a 1080p transfer Johnnie To's Sparrow arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Hong Kong-based distribs Universe Laser & Video Co. This is a brand new film, in fact, only a few months old, and as expected the Blu-ray transfer is spotless. Contrast, clarity, and detail here are simply fabulous. Everything appears well-defined and allowing for that specific "popping" look many have come to expect from contemporary productions that are transferred to Blu-ray. The color-scheme is also very strong with no issues to report. Furthermore, I did not detect any edge-enhancement patterns either. Sparrow also reveals a strong natural look which is entirely free of DNR manipulation.
As I noted in the review for SPL: Kill Zone Hong Kong distribs are really moving in the right direction with their latest releases and I am utterly impressed by the solid quality of their current crop of Blu-ray discs. If this is a sign for things to come I must express my most sincere satisfaction with the way things are shaping out as obviously there are people keeping a very close eye on these sparkling transfers and this is precisely how we want the distribs to treat their product. (Note: Even though the back cover for this release indicates Region-A only status the disc is actually region-free).
Sparrow Blu-ray, Audio Quality
There are four different tracks on this Blu-ray disc: Cantonese: LPCM 7.1, Cantonese: DTS-HD MA 5.1, Cantonese: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, and Mandarin: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX. I opted for the LPCM track (and then compared it during a few selected scenes to the DTS-HD Master mix). The quick verdict here is that both of those tracks are very well mixed and you would be hard pressed to pick which one is better. Yes, there is a very minimal advantage that goes to the LPCM track as there is a minuscule amount of extra activity in the surround channels but I personally had to go back and forth a few times to actually tell what was going on. Furthermore, Sparrow isn't a film rich on special effects so the bulk of this film has a very delicate sound structure. The terrific retro-ambient soundtrack by Fred Avril and Xavier Jamaux comes off the speakers marvelously and I was very impressed by its incredible quality. What a treat! This being said, I did not detect any hissings, pop-ups, or cracks that could disturb your viewing experience. On the contrary the dialog was particularly clear and very easy to follow. Optional traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, and English subtitles are provided for the main feature. (On a side note, I switched between the Cantonese Dolby Digital EX 5.1 and the Mandarin Dolby Digital EX 5.1 track to compare what they sound like for the purpose of this review and I must quickly note that they both seem to be very comparable – I did not detect any discrepancies in the balance structure).
Sparrow Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Aside from the original theatrical trailer for Sparrow on this Blu-ray disc you will also find footage from a press-conference which unfortunately isn't subtitled in English. This is quite an unfortunate scenario as aside from looking at the visuals there is hardly anything else that an English-speaker would find worthy here. Next, there is a gallery with four interviews by the leads and once again I am unable to provide you with a detailed description of their comments as none of these were subtitled in English. Finally, there is footage from the gala premiere of Sparrow as well as a short Making Of featurette but yet again none of these are subtitled in English.
Sparrow Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
What a terrific surprise! Prior to receiving this disc from Hong Kong I had only seen one trailer for Johnnie To's Sparrow and I had a very specific picture in my head as to what this film would look like. Well, I wasn't even close! I have now seen Sparrow twice during the last 48 hours and suffice to say this is the best Asian production to reach my desk this year. It is so subtle, so elegantly filmed, and so beautiful to behold that I am fully convinced the jury members at the Berlin International Film Festival got it all wrong. Sparrow is times better than the Brazilian drama Tropa de Elite and should have convincingly won the Golden Bear Award. See this film! Highly Recommended.
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