Dialogue: Johnnie To
EmptyCops and robbers; the ruthless but democratic election process in Hong Kong triad and the corruption and sleaze in the local police; blood brothers choosing between friendship and treasure. These are the constant themes of director Johnnie To, one of the most prolific and versatile directors Asia. His last two films, released three months apart, best show this diversity. They were the new melodramatic romance "Linger" and police drama "The Mad Detective." Yet the To films that reach the international marketplace are movies about men, always told from a male perspective.
"Sparrow," a personal piece four years in the making, will make its debut in competition at the 58th Berlin International Film Festival, reuniting this Asian auteur rooted in television drama with his longtime collaborator, former TV actor Simon Yam. To told The Hollywood Reporter's Karen Chu that he's been locked in postproduction 24/7 to finish this crime thriller about a gang of "sparrows" – Cantonese slang for pickpockets – who fall for a mysterious beauty whose true aim is to manipulate them into stealing a piece of incriminating evidence before it gets to trial.
The Hollywood Reporter: How do you feel about "Sparrow" being selected for competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival?
Johnnie To: I'm very happy that Berlin Film Festival decided to invite "Sparrow." Without their invitation, I would've gone on shooting more of the film.
THR: You have become quite a regular in the international festival circuit, having participated in Berlin five times. Do you have a special attachment to Berlin?
To: In 2000, the Berlin Film Festival invited my films including "The Mission," "Running Out Of Time" and "Where A Good Man Goes" in the Forum section. It was the first major film festival that I was invited to and I thank them for introducing my films to the international audiences.
THR: "Sparrow" marks the first time a film of yours joins the competition at Berlin. Do you have any hopes for it?
To: I'm happy that the film made it to the competition and to have finished the film, anything else is a bonus.
THR: It has taken four years for you to finish shooting "Sparrow". What took you so long?
To: The reason why "Sparrow" took many years to complete is because the film is a project of interest. I shoot the film whenever inspirations came to me and when I did, I would invite friends like Simon and Kelly Lin to come along to help shoot it. While I was shooting "Sparrow," I was also doing other projects, so it was a film I did during my spare time.
THR: You've worked hard in the four years since "Sparrow" started production, releasing 5 1/3 films: "Linger" (2008), "The Mad Detective" (2007), "Triangle" (2007, one of three segments), "Exiled" (2006), "Election 1 & 2" (2005 and 2006). Did any of those films influence the style or content of "Sparrow"?
To: When I started the film, I already knew the style and content. It was the details that were later decided. The end result was within my expectation and the contents didn't change either.
THR: What is that about pickpockets that appealed to you?
To: The real "sparrows" are a team effort. Just like the killers in "The Mission" or the cops in "PTU," it's also about teamwork. This is my area of interest; how a team works together.
THR: The announcement of the Berlin competition lineup coincided with the Hong Kong release of your supernatural love story "Linger." The subject matter and the style of the two films are so dissimilar that they serve as a demonstration of your versatility as a filmmaker. Nevertheless, those that received international recognition are mostly your "manly films." Is that an image that you want to project onto the international stage?
To: Every director has his own styles and preferred genre in filmmaking. My style tends towards more "brotherhood," but I've never eliminated the possibilities of trying out other genres of films. Like "Needing You" (2001), "Linger" is another new trial for me.