[Now that Tisch Film Review is defunct, I'm going to start re-posting the essays I wrote for its website here. The original version of this text, titled "Films and Feelings," appeared on the site on February 17, 2009. It has been substantially revised; the paragraphs have been re-ordered, and about 700 words have been cut.]
Sparrow is the story of some very skilled pickpockets meeting the same pretty girl, falling for her, and deciding to free her from the control of her infirm husband to the same degree that Vertigo is about Jimmy Stewart investigating a friend’s wife for him and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is about why he’s at a funeral. No Fear No Die is about cockfighting, Antoine & Antoinette has a couple winning the lottery, The Ladies Man is about a guy who lives with some girls and Play Time is the story of a man applying for a job.
Johnnie To has directed some of the best movies of the last two decades; he is more astounding than almost any other director working today. His cinema is exciting (but never tiring), intelligent (but never distanced), and, above all, emotional. He’s an amateur sociologist, a crack dramatist, an occasional poet. The stakes in Sparrow are much lower than any of his other films: no one is going to die (except maybe of old age) and the main characters get the physical violence coming to them early on, spending a portion of the movie with their arms and legs in casts or walking on crutches. There is no unavoidable set-up pitting people against each other, like in Fulltime Killer or Exiled. The four pickpockets in Sparrow are free to do whatever they want; they choose an action with no tangible reward–to rescue a beautiful girl they realize can’t love all of them–and To and his regular co-screenwriter Wai Ka-Fai let them follow it through.
Struggle, or at least the possibility of confrontation, has always been the main method To has used to explore emotions. While for a contemporary like John Woo the action movie or the gun fight was a way to forge a myth, for To it has always been a device in the strictest sense – a stage. Drama was a machine through which some idea of people (or, in the case of the Election movies, an idea of society) could be fed: the narrative became what they did as they made their way through the cogs and gears. To’s inevitabilities – the contract hits, the suicide missions, the desperate rescues, the haunted memories, the promises that drove protagonists to do foolish things – are a way to explore some idea of camaraderie, ambivalence or cowardice. Whereas in To’s previous crime films, the image of the gun – and the excitement and doom it represented –was a key instrument, here he abandons it completely (not even the heavies carry pistols), interfacing with the sense of danger it represented directly the way Hitchcock did from Marnie onwards, when his interest in human emotion overwhelmed his patience for traditional character and plot construction. Topaz was not a “suspenseful film,” but a film of suspense. Sparrow is not a “heartfelt” film, but a movie consisting entirely of feelings: the strange eroticism of a cigarette shared in a nighttime convertible ride, the mix of flirtation and competition of a casino drinking binge, a rooftop scene that’s equal parts confrontation and caring, the cocky suspense of pickpocketing in a business district and that disarming moment of loneliness given to the film’s nominal villain when he’s defeated. And, above all, a sense of freedom.
More than almost any other contemporary filmmaker, To is concerned with images and the potential of a moving picture: the way perspectives can shift within a single shot; how a shadow can be cast across a person’s face; the dramatics of framings, zooms, dollies, pans, focus changes and depth-of-field; the geometries and symmetries of composing with a wide-angle lens; cloaking shadows, choking daylight, colors both bright and muted.
Before embarking on Sparrow, To devoted an entire film to the dynamic possibilities of the image: Breaking News. The camera travels from floor to floor, from the far end of a room all the way up to a face. The nearly ten-minute shot which opens that movie is ostensibly tied to the build-up and failure of a police bust, beginning with two cops on a stake-out and collapsing into a daytime firefight. The camera moves back and forth, zooming in and out throughout a city block, becoming more claustrophobic, as though every movement mapped the contours of a stifling room, though we know very well that we’re being shown the microcosm of an entire city. “The image” is at the center of the film: criminals barricade themselves into an apartment building, taking a few (friendly) hostages; their battle with the police isn’t about some sort of tangible victory, but about creating and destroying images for the news media gathered outside. Everything they do is to create a picture, to provide a sound bite or a good photo. Which also happens to be the underlying idea of montage: one image affects or upsets another.
Even within the expressive tradition of Cantonese cinema, Johnnie To stands out. As any cinematographer is also an editor, every director who thinks (and thinking of oneself is a key, as, whether they realize it or not, every director expresses something, even if it’s only indifference, through images) of him or herself as expressing through images also expresses through edits. In a scene near the beginning of PTU, every new ‘scope image suggests that a different party has taken power over the others as a policeman, a hoodlum and the hoodlum’s eventual assassin play a sort of musical chairs in a little restaurant. The opening scenes of Election, which traverse long expanses of space across a city, from smoky rooms to sunny riversides, map the boundaries of a netherworld: a series of match-cuts based on social rather than physical gestures.
Before Sparrow, every To movie saw Hong Kong as a locked room (yeah, in Fulltime Killer, To turned the city into a playground, but remember that kids don’t go to the playground out of free will – they’re brought there by their parents). Breaking News made it into a prison on fire. Exiled and the Election movies showed it as an unwashable mark, something that you can’t escape even if you leave it. But here is a sort of liberation, which takes us back to the liberating city life of early cinema and away from the view of cities as stifling places that has dominanted cinema for the last 40 years. “Possibility” isn’t the right word; it suggests choices, and choices are always limited. The protagonists (and by this I also mean the filmmakers) of Sparrow have found a way to be free. Their actions are no longer tests of their character – how they might handle this situation or this set-up or this genre. And it gives those actions weight, because how a person might behave when their hand is forced is measured by different standards from how a person might behave when they’re free to do whatever they want. Because of his facility with the basics of cinema – with images, edits, sounds, performances, etc. – Johnnie To can create a film out of anything at this point. He could find the sensations in two hours of needlepoint or a long cab ride. But these are the feelings he’s chosen and the film he’s made. He is unmoored, untethered. He’s gone hunting, caught something and brought it back.