Bottom line: Playful, nostalgic thief caper is a lark.

BERLIN -- There's a Cantonese saying that goes, "Though the sparrow is tiny, its organs are intact." That pretty much sums up Johnnie To's "Sparrow," which has a feather-light plot that flies in the face of credibility but contains all the right components for an entertaining hit, like gracefully choreographed action sequences by martial arts veteran Yuen Biao and a well-assembled cast.

The most likable quality of "Sparrow" is its playfulness, which comes from a director assured of his craft. Die-hard genre-lovers might prefer the warped psychology of "Mad Detective" or the dark cynicism of "Election," but the general audience will easily be swept away by "Sparrow's" good-natured humor and infectious joie de vivre. Domestic boxoffice and overseas sales should be fairly robust.

To builds his crime adventures around a debonair brotherhood of maverick pickpockets: Kei, Bo, Sak and Mac. Compared to gun-toting gangsters, theirs is a quaint and dated profession, with nimble fingers and razor blades as their only weapons. Leader Kei (Simon Yam) is an unflappable gentleman of the Old World, styled after Cary Grant or Marcello Mastroianni.

The sudden appearance of Chun Lei (Kelly Lin), a mysterious beauty who dresses like Grace Kelly, makes the men blow their cool. She actually is a caged bird, who courts them only to beg them to help her steal from her sugar daddy Mr. Fu (Lo Hoi Pang).

"Sparrow" is steeped in nostalgia for a world of honor and gallantry like in John Woo's "Once a Thief" or Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief." Most of all, it is a homage to the most colorful film set in Hong Kong cinema: Hong Kong herself.

Lin, whose role is to run around in high heels looking scared, traverses historic sites on the island. Kei pedals nonchalantly around town on his bicycle and takes snapshots of the city with his Rolleiflex. These black-and-white images have their own intrinsic value as much of what's been preserved onscreen will face demolition.

It's the parts rather than the sum of "Sparrow" that have the most dazzling effect -- like the elegant ballet of the pickpockets as they whirl around their targets, then pop razor blades into their mouths like chewing gum. The showdown with Mr. Fu is a stylized slo-mo sequence with men on both sides holding umbrellas with the surreal air of a Magritte painting. Music is a melodic mixture of classic '70s scores with Cantonese operatic tunes.

Milkyway Way Image/Universe Films Distribution

Credits: Director-producer: Johnnie To
Screenwriters: Milkyway Creative Team, Chan Kin Chung, Fung Chih Chiang
Executive producers: Daneil Lam, Chiu Suet Ying
Director of photography: Cheng Siu Keung
Art director: Tony Yu
Music: Xavier Jamaux, Fred Avril
Costume designer: Stanley Cheung
Editor: David Richardson
Kei: Simon Yam
Chun Lei: Kelly Lin
Mr. Fu: Lo Hoi Pang
Bo: Lam Ka Tung

No MPAA rating, running time 87 minutes.