Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Cast: Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Ka Tung Lam, Hoi-Pang Lo, Wing-cheong Law, Kenneth Cheung
Director: Johnnie To
Country: Hong Kong
Language: Cantonese, Mandarin
Runtime: 87 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Thriller, Drama, Comedy

        When it comes to choreographing a scene, enlivening it through a spectacular tracking shot, and rendering it by the most perfect editing, I believe Mr. To has no peer in modern cinema. On a purely formal level, his effortless mise-en-scene is one of the great pleasures of movie going. Man Jeuk is a film, where it feels, the technique is driving the narrative rather than the other way around. Such is the control the audio-visual style commands that you might choose to shut the dialogs off altogether and it might make no difference at all. Such is the finesse of the craft on display that you might wish there existed no plot in its way. Mr. To seems to oblige, and arresting us with the aid of his most delightful self he liberates Man Jeuk into sheer poetry.
        This is the kind of film where you do not describe the plot, but instead describe the scenes. How gracefully the pieces are set up, and how precisely Mr. To seems to have it all figured out. Not just in the individual scenes, but all the frames as a whole. But then, they are no longer frames for there’s nothing static about them. Even something as banal as an establishing shot is a moment of great wonder here, with the camera gracefully moving over the dolly and zooming out or in. This is the kind of film where the filmmaker doesn’t let the plot stand in our way. He isn’t going through the motion, but is instead wonderstruck by each and every moment of it. Look how smoothly everything flows here. To believe how expertly this has been crafted take a simple test. Pause the film anywhere, and walk away, and come back after a while. Pick it up again, and you’ll feel as if you’re walking into something incomplete. You would want to rewind, just to feel the tune from its very first note. That is how you listen to the most special of music. That is how you’ll end up loving Man Jeuk. What makes me so confident? I believe there’re things of such beauty the human sensory perception just cannot escape.
        Consider the opening pickpocket scene where the gang of four pickpockets, or sparrows as the Cantonese slang refers to those who are good at this (Courtesy: IMDb), slide through four victims on one street and smoothly unload the whatever. It is one single take, three unaware victims and the skill is highlighted in the way there’re no edits here. One single shot, with no edges but only curves. It moves to the tune of some exotic Oriental belly dance, and we feel the grace of the arts, filmmaking and pick-pocketing, at the same time. Look how the set-up is introduced, not through a tired establishing shot but a poetic show-off. The fluidity of the filmmaking here betrays an almost feminine feel to proceedings. It goes to show how a slightly staggered style, with edits employed in place of one single take floating through the action, lends a feel of the masculine. When I say masculine, I mean a certain distance of austerity. Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is hard to be ignored here.
        I say, the aesthetics and technique drive the narrative and its feel. The feminine then isn’t limited to the filmmaking here. In a sense, Sparrow is an invasion of sorts into the traditionally macho-style of the Johnnie To universe, both literally and figuratively. I remember Mr. Bozon’s La France, but that was a somber contemplation. This one is a joyous celebration of the invasion, which occurs in the form of Chung Lei (Ms. Lin), and her four-pronged seduction of the gang doesn’t feel like the tentacles of a femme fatale but the warm arms of an angel. Not to be wary of but to cheerfully submit, and not just to the pleasure but to the great joy of this magical occasion. Mr. To’s film wants to be liberated from all the coldness of the tough guy pretense and instead wants to be locked in here forever.
        But then, it is impossible to curb your instincts, pretense or not, and the film ends with one of those elaborate set-piece showdown that you would want to applaud. It is pickpockets versus pickpockets, and if you guess who is at stake here, I believe your first guess does have a mighty great chance of landing right on the money. Rain falls, the night is lit in neon, umbrellas all over the frame and what the pickpockets indulge in is nothing short of a ballet. Gloriously shot in slow-mo, every single frame every single movement every single look is worthy of a Kodak moment. Not just in the style but in the substance too. This is To-territory folks, and honor is a necessity. And Mr. To, the great and compassionate filmmaker he is doesn’t resort to any conventional win-lose climax to this finale. It is original, and it honors each and every one of its characters standing on both ends. In these times of heavy and dark themes, Man Jeuk feels like bliss, as light and floating as the sparrow itself. And if it proves to be influential in the years ahead folks, do remember where you heard it first.

1 comment:

nitesh said...

Wonderful review, been waiting to watch this one, I had missed it at the Osian last year.