Dir: Johnnie To. Hong Kong. 2008. 87 mins.
The spirit of Jacques Demy lives on in Hong Kong in prolific genre auteur Johnnie To's latest offering. Some of the scenes in this gentle romantic pickpocketing yarn are pure cinematic pleasure, but in the end the plot and the characters are too thin to turn a series of delightfully stylised setpieces into a fully satisfying film.

On one level, Sparrow is a paean to Hong Kong, whose colourful urban maze is celebrated in almost every frame. At times, the theatrical lighting and cast choreography are so like a musical that we almost expect Simon Yam, Kelly Lin and their fellow actors to burst into song; instead we get a deliciously jazzy, Gallic-tinged lounge soundtrack from composers Xavier Jamaux and Fred Avril that prompts us to see Hong Kong through a veil of Gauloise smoke.

It's not the first time To has done oddball romantic comedy, and the director's hardcore fans will consider it a must. But although its pickpocketing switch-and-bait scenes are a joy to watch, Sparrow is not going to do it for those Hong Kong action aficionados who have To's triad and crime films like Election or PTU on their shelves next to Infernal Affairs. This may in part be made up for by the film's marketability as a sophisticated date movie.

To's festival success is rarely followed up by significant theatrical action outside of Asia (Mad Detective, which previewed at Venice last year, is still looking for buyers in Berlin); but Sparrow could be the release that, in a small way, breaks the jinx.

The opening shot sets the tone, and raises anticipation: we see Simon Yam sitting on the bed in his shabby-chic apartment, sewing up the jacket of his cream linen suit with jaunty, exaggerated gestures: as he finishes, a sparrow flies in through the window. It's as if the curtain has just risen at the theatre: and what follows will stay firmly in the same hyper-realist, filter-lit key.

Yam plays Kei, the leader of a band of pickpockets who work together to filch wallets, watches and other booty on the city streets. Younger associate Bo (Lam Ka Tung) thinks he's good enough to take over from Kei; the other two band members, bespectacled, geeky Sak (Law Wing Cheong) and slacker motorcyclist Mac (Kenneth Cheung), play genial supporting acts.

When he's not lifting wallets, Kei cycles around Hong Kong snapping photos of city life - including, one day, pretty, nervous Chun Lei (Boarding Gate), who seems to be running from something. We soon learn that she's being kept by a rich businessman, Mr Fu (Lo Hoi Pang), who loads her with jewels and finery but has her followed by his henchmen whenever she leaves the house. Chun Lei's meeting with Kei turns out to be less of an accident than it seems; she contrives to reel in, separately, all four petty thieves, and, in some of the film's most inventively amusing scenes, work her charms on them - because she needs them to use their pickpocketing skills to do her a favour.

To possesses an effortless gift for turning the mundane into something magical through framing, lighting, atmospheric locations, and deftly matched mood music. He and the creative team at Milky Way are not quite such perfectionists when it comes to the script - which, though good at maintaining the funny, charming tone, is a little too linear and simplistic even for a light-hearted genre work.

It also lags significantly in the middle after the ravishing first act. But the final setpiece is a corker even by To's exacting standards. Imagine a duel between Hong Kong pickpockets filmed, choreographed and scored in the style of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Though there's not much going on beneath its gorgeous surface, Sparrow is worth a look for the surface alone.

Presented by
Universe Entertainment Ltd

Production company
Milkyway Image (Hong Kong) Ltd

International sales
Universe Films Distribution Company Ltd

Executive producers
Daneil Lam
Chiu Suet Ying

Johnnie To

Milkyway Creative Team
Chan Kin Chung
Fung Chih Chiang

Cheng Siu Keung

Production design
Tony Yu

David Richardson

Xavier Jamaux
Fred Avril

Main cast
Simon Yam
Kelly Lin
Lam Ka Tung
Lo Hoi Pang
Law Wing Cheong
Kenneth Cheung