Johnnie To's 'Sparrow' checks in as a skittish, playful divertissement that looks set to divide his loyal fanbase.

In gestation, and shooting on and off, for some two to three years, Johnnie To’s “Sparrow” checks in as a skittish, playful divertissement that looks set to divide his loyal fanbase. Tale of a group of Hong Kong pickpockets — title is Cantonese slang for the profession — who become involved with a mysterious dame has a loose, jazzy feel similar to To’s 2004 “Throw Down,” with sparse dialogue and most of the movie driven by simply music and facial interplay. A gun-free, and virtually fight-free zone, without the gravitas of “Throw Down,” pic looks to be largely a fest and ancillary title.

Film sets up an immediate link between professional “sparrow” Kei (To regular Simon Yam) and the real thing, as a bird flies into his apartment while he’s readying for another day’s work lifting wallets on the streets. Over breakfast at their regular diner, Kei’s colleagues — Bo (Lam Ka-tung), Sak (Law Wing-cheong) and Mac (Kenneth Cheung) — all take it as a bad omen, and they’re soon proved right.

Kei’s hobby is photographing people and places with his vintage Rolleiflex camera, and into his lens that day flits Chung Chun-lei (Taiwanese actress Kelly Lin), an elegant but distracted young Mainlander who seems perpetually on the run. Like a bird herself, she’s gone as soon as she appears.

She subsequently entrances the hard-gambling Bo at a casino where, in a delightful sequence driven largely by bluesy music, she proves Bo’s match in the pickpocket stakes. Soon, the entire quartet is fascinated by the firefly femme, who seems to compulsively come on to them before vanishing again.

Finally, Chun-lei makes her big play for Kei, whom she knows is a professional pickpocket as she’s been studying him from an apartment opposite. Intrigued, Kei & Co. end up meeting her rich sugar-daddy, Mr. Fu (Lo Hoi-pang), with whom they have their own score to settle, and agree to an elaborate gamble that will free Chun-lei from Fu’s grasp.

Back-of-a-coaster plot contains a reasonable number of traditional twists and turns but is not entirely driven by them as in many of To’s pictures. With an almost wall-to-wall score by French composer Xavier Jamaux (To’s previous “Mad Detective”) and Fred Avril, that’s alternately jazzy and insouciant, film is not not so much a caper movie, more a love letter by the helmer to the many moods and endless capacity for renewal by the city of Hong Kong itself.

At a time when Hong Kong is searching for a role in an evolving Greater China, “Sparrow” turns the clock back to a time of simpler values. Kei rides to work on a rickety bike, takes B&W pictures that give the city an almost ’50s look, and plays around with his three pals with no thoughts for the future. Take out some of the more elaborate set pieces and “Sparrow” almost has the feel (and certainly spirit) of a ’50s Cantonese movie plonked down in contempo Hong Kong.

Like many To pictures, there’s a dip in the middle going as the initial high concept wears off and the script winds up again for a granddstanding finale — in this case, a pickpocketing “duel” played out at night with rain and umbrellas, in which time almost stands still. But on its own terms, it’s never less than engaging.

Yam’s easy charm holds the pic together, and supports are are all solid, with Lam standing out among the sparrows and the Mandarin-speaking Lin fine as the skittish but crafty Chun-lei. Regular d.p. Cheng Siu-keung’s lensing is heavier on tight closeups than usual, bringing an extra intensity to the face-on-face interplay, neatly edited by David Richardson.

Sparrow

Hong Kong

Production

A Universe Entertainment presentation of a Milkyway Image production. (International sales: Universe Films Distribution Co., Hong Kong.) Produced by Johnnie To. Executive producers, Daneil Lam, Chiu Suet-ying. Executive in charge of production, Alvin Lam. Directed by Johnnie To. Screenplay, Milkyway Creative Team, Chan Kin-chung, Fung Chih-chiang.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Cheng Siu-keung; editor, David Richardson; music, Xavier Jamaux, Fred Avril; art director, Tony Yu; costume designer, Stanley Cheung; soiund (Dolby SRD), Martin Chappell. (Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival — competing), Feb. 10, 2008. Running time: 87 MIN. (Cantonese, Mandarin dialogue)

With

Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Lam Ka-tung, Lo Hoi-pang, Law Wing-cheong, Kenneth Cheung.

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