Asian Crime Directors Johnnie To News Sparrow

Modernity, Melancholia, and Cultural Heritage: Johnnie To’s Sparrow


In Sparrow, this sense of melancholia manifests as an summary nostalgia for the structure and cultural values of an previous Hong Kong that’s quickly disappearing and being changed by the buildings of a worldwide bureaucratic state. To paints Hong Kong as a metropolis in a state of everlasting transit by which the topic is unable to discover a concrete id or cultural roots.

* * *

Johnnie To is among the most prolific and critically celebrated filmmakers to have emerged from the fashionable Chinese language studio system, his movies persistently not solely gaining big reputation in his residence nation but in addition attaining vital worldwide consideration. His work thus brings to abroad audiences the existential and religious malaise of post-colonial Hong Kong, packaged as comparatively simple style movies. The strain between custom and hyper-modernity has shaped the thematic foundation of a lot of To’s his current work, every taking over a unique facet of life in trendy Hong Kong: the financialization and de-industrialization of the Chinese language financial system in Workplace, the interconnection between mass media and the surveillance state in Breaking Information, the technocracy of the mafia in Drug Struggle, and the pressures of the free market in Don’t Go Breaking My Coronary heart. Though there’s a common settlement in essential circles of To’s engagement with the altering cultural standing of Hong Kong, views on the position sociopolitics performs in his options are divergent. Kozo from perceives the function as being little greater than a love letter to the town, rife with “places that spotlight the town’s cultural appeal in addition to its city structure and cosmopolitan really feel.” The assessment concludes that “Sparrow portrays Hong Kong as a romantic and really pretty place – a really giant purpose that the movie feels as seductive because it does.” Quite the opposite, Cheung reads Sparrow as merely positioning the glory of the previous Hong Kong in opposition to the ruination of hyper-modernity, arguing that the movie is expressive of To’s want to report some elements of the historical past of Hong Kong on movie earlier than all of the interval parts […] utterly disappear, and are changed by newer buildings and other forms of metropolis constructions.” Cheung’s piece on the movie is perceptive, and I consider that the type of the function is essentially based mostly on a quest to protect sights and traditions of conventional Hong Kong. To’s personal description of the motivation behind the venture corroborates this attitude: “I really feel that Hong Kong is a fast-changing metropolis […] Over the previous few years we see this stuff regularly disappear. With Sparrow we hope to catch the fading elements of Hong Kong. The historical past, or info, or reminiscences.” [sic] (Determine 1)

Determine 1

On this article, I learn To’s 2008 function Sparrow as being expressive of the situation Freud phrases “melancholia.” It’s first necessary to make a distinction between “melancholia” and “mourning” – whereas “mourning” is a transparent response to a selected loss that may simply be recognized, the method of “melancholia” is rooted in a lack of a extra summary variety. “Melancholia” is a response to an absence that has “withdrawn from consciousness,” in order that its topic “can’t see clearly what it’s that has been misplaced […] and what he has misplaced in him.” Whereas the mourning course of is a direct, comparatively simple response to loss that permits the cathartic expunging of adverse emotions, “melancholia” is a sensation that permits for no such emotional launch. Constructing on Freud, Abraham and Torok write that the feeling of melancholia results in “incorporation”: “Incorporation outcomes from these losses that for some purpose can’t be acknowledged as such,” leading to “a refusal to mourn.” In such instances, the sensation of melancholia provides rise to a “tomb inside the topic [where] the loss is buried in [a] crypt.” In Sparrow, this sense of melancholia manifests as an summary nostalgia for the structure and cultural values of an previous Hong Kong that’s quickly disappearing and being changed by the buildings of a worldwide bureaucratic state. To paints Hong Kong as a metropolis in a state of everlasting transit by which the topic is unable to discover a concrete id or cultural roots. I’ll draw on the writings of Vivian in relation to the therapeutic capabilities of Hong Kong cinema to return to phrases with cultural transition to argue that To doesn’t merely mourn the passing of the Previous Hong Kong, however highlights the methods during which sure cultural values could also be sustained inside a realm of hyper-modernity. The movie does this by developing a lens of nostalgia that’s each diegetic and extra-diegetic, using movie type to create a construction of feeling that aligns the viewer together with his characters (Determine 2).


Determine 2

The attitude embodied by Sparrow is what Boym phrases “reflective nostalgia.” In her seminal research The Way forward for Nostalgia, Boym argues that there are two main types of nostalgia: reflective and restorative. Reflective nostalgia seeks to mirror on an idealized previous to spotlight the alienated and uprooted nature of a ruinous current, whereas restorative nostalgia seems to be to the previous as a way to “places emphasis on nostos (returning residence) and proposes to rebuild the misplaced residence and patch up the reminiscence gaps.” To’s cinema evokes “reflective nostalgia” because it explores how disappearing websites and values within the metropolis evokes emotions of loss and melancholia. There’s a binary opposition arrange within the movie between the previous and a ruinous current characterised by transit, velocity, and hybridity. That is what Castells phrases an “informational metropolis,” based mostly on post-industrial capital, materialism, and fluidity, characterised by the circulate of data over nationwide politics and conventional boundaries. More and more, Hong Kong has turn out to be subsumed into the buildings of globalization and late-period capitalism, which collapses the precise qualities of particular person tradition and geographical boundaries in favour of uniting the main superpowers of the world. As Ackbar Abbas argues, Hong Kong has all the time been a metropolis of transition, because it has advanced from “fishing village to British colony to international metropolis,” now standing as a capitalist financial superpower. A metropolis perpetually within the throes of speedy historic and technological change provides rise to what Abbas phrases a “area of disappearance,” an surroundings during which area appears to develop into “extra assorted and multifarious, oversaturated with indicators and pictures, concurrently it turns into extra summary and ungraspable.” This lack of a concrete id has, as Berry argues, been on the centre of a lot of the Hong Kong cinema of the late 20th century:

Hong Kong’s state of affairs as a colony and a website of exile led to the event of a specific consciousness, expressed and developed within the cinema, of the territory’s liminal standing […] Though the brand new era imagined Hong Kong as residence slightly than as an area of exile, the metaphor of the jianghu outlaw land endured. However now, as an alternative of being colored by nostalgia for a misplaced homeland, it was accented by an anticipatory nostalgia for a home-in-the-outlaw-land that may quickly be misplaced.

On the centre of Sparrow, then, is a pressure between the speedy ahead movement of modernity and the will to carry off the passage of time, to maintain fixed parts of the Hong Kong tradition everlasting. Freud defines mourning as originating in “the response to the lack of a liked individual, or to the lack of some abstraction which has taken the place of 1, resembling one’s nation, liberty, a super and so forth.” The act of mourning includes first recognizing this loss, after which overcoming it. When this “has been completed, the ego could have succeeded in liberating its libido from the misplaced object.” Within the movie, the relation of the characters to the previous is extra intently aligned to Freud’s definition of “melancholia,” which expresses a response to a “lack of a extra perfect sort, one can’t see clearly what it’s that has been misplaced … and what he has misplaced in him.” This can be a extra summary, intangible type of loss, which could be described, within the phrases of Abraham and Torok, as “a trauma whose very prevalence and devastating emotional penalties are entombed and thereby consigned to inner silence, albeit unwittingly, by the victims themselves.” This can be a extra summary course of than mourning, as the topic realizes on an unconscious degree that a loss has taken place, but they consciously refuse to acknowledge that a loss has occurred. Because of this refusal to return to phrases with a considerable loss, the misplaced object returns as a repressed drive, typically taking over a haunting, spectral type (Determine three).


Determine three

To’s current filmography foregrounds the standing of Hong Kong as a metropolis of hybridity and speedy acceleration, trapped between the values of Previous Hong Kong and the relentless forces of ahead progress, globalization, and materialism. The persistence of cultural traditions, familial bonds, and localized areas collides with the mass tourism, gentrification, and rampart consumerism overtaking the town within the years following its liberation from British rule. The cultural area of Hong Kong in Sparrow is one in every of spatial and temporal abstraction, the place trendy high-rises and previous tenement buildings sit side-by-side, a paradoxical mishmash of varied cultures and eras that the characters wrestle to regulate to – intellectually, bodily, and emotionally. The town just isn’t a hard and fast area that homes one dominant social group, however relatively a paradoxical mix of varied cultures. Many languages seem in each written and verbal types, together with Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, and the pickpockets acquire all kinds of various currencies from their victims. Ads for American fast-food chains and Western-style bars are positioned prominently within the background of many photographs, and characters spend their free time partaking in Western pastimes reminiscent of poker. The presence of Lei, a mainland lady who longs to flee the town, represents the inflow of intruders who understand the town merely as a liminal area. The binary attitudes of the 2 felony teams on the centre of Sparrow parallel the vastly contrasted bodily area of the setting, cut up between the quaint neighbourhoods of Previous Hong Kong and modernized, gentrified tower blocks. Because the central group of pickpockets characterize a life-style that’s turning into more and more marginalized in trendy Hong Kong tradition, they’re getting ready to dissolution. To’s conception of Hong Kong thus has a lot in widespread with Clarke’s conception of the “haunted metropolis.” For Clarke, cities which are present process a course of of serious architectural, social, or political improvement are suspended in a transitional part between one time interval and one other, in addition to being haunted by different world cities looking for to impose their tradition upon it. This leads to a worry that the town may “lose its distinctiveness” upon its absorption right into a world financial system.

The distinctive experiential results created by the speedy unmooring of conventional cultural bearings are expressed via To’s aesthetic development. Eschewing close-ups and one-shots, To frames his characters in roomy vast photographs that draw the viewer’s eye to the visible environment, typically with the characters positioned in order that they seem small within the body. Typically, an architectural object within the foreground will obscure characters framed within the center floor, or they are going to be positioned behind a reflective floor that may superimpose a mirrored image of the cityscape on prime of them. The composition in Determine Four options the 4 pickpockets discussing enterprise in a automotive, with photographs of recent high-rises obscuring their figures. This picture suggests not solely the imposing nature of modernity on the protagonists, but in addition the ungraspable, insubstantial nature of a metropolis continually in some extent of transition between one temporal state and the subsequent.


Determine Four

Whereas the town is characterised by velocity and fluidity, the central pickpockets are outlined by their stasis and a backward-looking mentality. It’s by way of the behaviour of those characters that the movie most clearly expresses a way of melancholia relating to the lack of conventional Chinese language tradition inside a globalized cityscape. The characters are weighed down by an unacknowledged sense of nostalgia for a quickly disappearing lifestyle, and lots of of their actions and attitudes may be perceived as an implicit try and reconnect with the misplaced values of this earlier period. They stay in previous tenement house buildings, dine in conventional tea rooms, traverse the town on bicycles, and usually categorical an attachment to classic and bodily media, resembling Kei’s Rollieflex reflex digital camera, with which he data photographs he then processes in a darkroom. The characters have interiorized an unacknowledged state of melancholy and maladjustment typical of the Hong Kong dweller, which is expressed by means of their determined makes an attempt to retain a way of particular person id by means of their attachment to rituals and mundane objects. As To explains within the introduction to the movie on the particular version DVD, the Cantonese title of the function, Man Jeuk, is, in its unique language, an antiquated slang time period extra generally utilized by the middle-aged and the aged than the younger males on the centre of Sparrow. Certainly, the low-level, nonviolent, non-technocratic legal exercise indulged in by the central foursome appears quaint and antiquated in distinction to the large felony syndicate presided over by Mr. Fu, the villain of the movie. The truth that the chief antagonist, Fu, was prior to now a pickpocket earlier than rising up the ranks of felony enterprise to occupy his present place as a mafia boss emphasizes the precarious nature of the lads’s work.

As a result of the movie is about completely within the current, the nostalgia is conjured solely by means of modern-day remnants of the previous slightly than its direct visualisation, as To encourages his viewers to view the motion via the prism of a pre-existing information of Chinese language historical past and its customs. As Carolyn Cartier argues, the work of Hong Kong artists has performed a big half within the conservation efforts to retain historic websites and protect a semblance of nationwide id within the face of the overwhelming land improvement insurance policies and gentrification efforts that took over the town within the wake of the 1997 liberation. These modernization efforts not solely trigger bodily destruction to native areas, however concurrently erase traces of the collective reminiscence and shared expertise of the town’s inhabitants. In Sparrow, Hong Kong’s in style cultural traditions corresponding to previous tenement buildings and tea rooms, are painted as being the “repository of the group’s collective reminiscence.” It’s by way of these pictures that To connects the viewer to a shared cultural previous. By capturing photographs of places and traditions which might be beneath menace by modernity, Sparrow features as what Vivian phrases a “theatre of reminiscence,” preserving a localized impression of the previous for consumption by a large viewers. As Louie observes, “whereas most governments and schooling methods produce narratives of fastened ‘nationwide cultures,’ actually cultures are in a perpetual state of change.” But, regardless of “the growing modernization within the twentieth century, many core traditions continued to characterize the panorama.” Their want to carry on to conventional elements of Hong Kong tradition which might be being more and more positioned underneath menace by the gentrifying forces of modernity is probably greatest exemplified by Kei’s behavior of photographing the uncared for areas of the town – decrepit alleyways in Sheung Wan, Wanchai, and the outskirts of Hong Kong. By way of this, he’s implicitly preserving sights which might be more likely to quickly disappear. The ensuing photographs, intercut seamlessly with the motion, taking over the whole body, have a documentary high quality. The movie makes use of this character and the act of images as a way to mirror on the problems of heritage and collective reminiscence as they exist spatially. The top credit of the movie are introduced alongside a slideshow of Kei’s black-and-white portraits, thus aligning the character much more intently with To and portraying his sense of nostalgia with that of the movie itself (Figures Four-6). The cut up between the backward-looking Kei and the ahead momentum of Lei is foregrounded when she, seeing his work in his darkroom, asks incredulously “Why are the pictures in black and white?,” to which he responds “colors could be deceiving.” Lei is so caught up within the relentless velocity of modernization that she sees no worth in nostalgia or reflection.


Determine 5


Determine 6

The central pickpockets exemplify what Vivian Pui-Yin Lee describes because the “Hong Kong spirit” expressed in lots of in style Chinese language movies and numerous types of media. This type of character is designed to “popularize and internationalize a ‘Hong Kong id’ within the post-handover period” and could be outlined as an “energetic, hardworking, fun-loving, adaptable, resilient, and an ever-loyal buddy” in addition to an “enterprising, energetic, resilient, and upwardly cellular everyman.” The exploration of such traits in cinematic type holds the potential to be therapeutic, as they alleviate collective anxieties surrounding modern technological and sociopolitical change by reflecting on the previous and highlighting which cultural values must be preserved sooner or later. On this sense, Hong Kong movies not solely delve into nostalgia diegetically, but in addition extra-diegetically, as they encourage the preservation of constructive cultural values inside the shifting panorama of the town. Thus, the collective reminiscence that To faucets into in Sparrow is just not merely certainly one of materials parts, however one among shared cultural values which might be positioned underneath menace in a bureaucratic state. The heroes of Sparrow definitely fulfil such a characterisation. They’re humble everymen, united by a robust sense of camaraderie, sure to a loyal code of legal honour (though they rob unsuspecting victims, they’ve a pact by no means to trigger them bodily hurt or emotional misery), and get on with their neighbours. It’s via holding onto these fastened inside values that To’s characters are capable of survive inside a tradition of disappearance, stopping them from being assimilated into the buildings of late capitalism which have ensnared Mr. Fu’s gang. Nevertheless, their steadfast refusal to desert these core cultural values has additionally rendered them outcasts unable to adapt to the buildings of the modernized metropolis.

There are three layers of cultural reminiscence and preservation that Sparrow addresses: the previous in architectural type, the previous as a set of communal values, and the previous as a website of collective reminiscence preserved within the photographic photographs collected by Kei. It is just by remaining rooted in all three varieties that the central group of pickpockets are capable of struggle the de-humanizing results of modernity. If the protagonists, nevertheless, embody the perfect of constructive cultural preservation, then their antagonist, Mr. Fu, is the image of the corrupting features of ahead progress. The 2 are diametrically opposed: Mr. Fu traverses the town in an opulent limousine, whereas the pickpockets journey bicycles. Mr. Fu operates from a big trendy skyscraper (launched in a sluggish pan down to emphasise its monolithic measurement), whereas the pickpockets work in run-down tenement flats – the introduction of the 2 places are even framed in opposing methods, because the skyscraper is launched with a sluggish pan down its outer floor, to emphasise not solely its monolithic measurement, but in addition its generic, chrome look, whereas Kei’s condo is launched with a sluggish dolly-in into its inside. Mr. Fu indulges in capitalistic extra, reminiscent of an in depth therapeutic massage remedy, whereas the pickpockets lead lives of few thrills and modest means. The pickpockets are tied to their career by means of their love of the work, captured by To in exhilarating, unbroken Steadicam photographs, whereas the formidable Mr. Fu sees his background as a pickpocket solely as an early stepping-stone to his later legal empire. Kei treats his cohorts as buddies, whereas Mr. Fu treats his companions as staff.

Put merely, if the central pickpockets are tied to native id and a longing to protect the previous, Mr. Fu represents monstrous capitalistic greed run unfettered. The prolonged sequences of Mr. Fu present process grotesque therapeutic massage practices and lounging in his luxurious workplace are exemplary of Abbas’ conception of 21st-century Hong Kong decadence: “Historic creativeness, the residents’ perception that they could have a hand in shaping their very own historical past, will get changed by hypothesis on the property or inventory markets, or by an obsession with style or consumerism.” This prolonged sequence ironizes the ambitions of democracy and financial splendour that late capitalism guarantees to carry, as an alternative demonstrating how it’s squandered on pointless excesses. The ideological opposition between the teams is made specific within the narrative of the function, which sees the 4 heroes getting down to free Chung from the management of the domineering Mr. Fu, who views her as being an extension of his property. The large distinction in mentality between Kei and Fu is made clear within the face-to-face assembly between them. Kei demonstrates an understated sense of honour and selflessness, as he pleads with Mr. Fu: “Love can’t be pressured. Perceive?” Fu angrily responds “You have been nonetheless in nappies once I was choosing pockets. You’ll be able to’t afford to play this recreation.” Using the phrase “afford,” with its clear capitalistic undertones, attracts a connection between financial worth and the worth of human life in a post-industrial financial system.

A theoretical strategy to Sparrow as an expression of the feeling of displacement skilled by residents of post-handover Hong Kong, as this important studying has demonstrated, permits us to understand his work as a mnemonic cultural software that constructs a story constructed on shared reminiscences of a localized and idealized previous. To’s work gives substantial insights into the sociocultural results that globalization and post-industrial capitalism have had on the material of up to date Hong Kong. A studying of To’s work towards the grain of modernity and ahead progress by way of the lens of Freud’s idea of melancholia fills a niche in To scholarship by arguing for an interpretative paradigm that investigates the symbiotic relation between late capitalism and alienation on the centre of To’s filmography. This studying highlights the sense of loss and longing informing To’s work, by means of which Sparrow expresses the experiential results of hybridity and modernization that post-liberation Hong Kong is predicated on. Recognizing the centrality of those points to To’s oeuvre may also help a mirrored image on the connection between Hong Kong, gentrification, capital, and imperialism over the early 21st century. Through the use of his characters to interact with the cultural previous and set up a reference to the collective reminiscence of the town, Sparrow holds therapeutic qualities, aiding viewers in overcoming the disappearance of the native tradition. As To’s movies make seen the hyperlinks between on a regular basis life and the forces of modernity, Sparrow testifies to the facility of cinema to assist within the improvement a crucial understanding of the broader cultural and political forces that form private life.



Breaking Information, 2004 [Film]. Directed by Johnnie To. China: Media Asia Distribution.

Don’t Go Breaking My Coronary heart, 2011 [Film]. Directed by Johnnie To. China: Media Asia Distribution.

Drug Conflict, 2012 [Film]. Directed by Johnnie To. China: Media Asia Distribution and Variance Movies.

Workplace, 2015 [Film]. Directed by Johnnie To. China: Edko Movies.

Sparrow, 2008 [Film]. Directed by Johnnie To. China: China Movie Group and Universe Movies Distribution Co. Ltd.

Secondary Sources

Abbas, A. (1997). Hong Kong: Tradition and the Politics of Disappearance. Minneapolis: College of Minnesota Press.

Abraham, N. and Torok, M. (1994). “Mourning or Melancholia: Introjection versus Incorporation.” In Rand, Nicholas T. (ed.), The Shell and the Kernel. Renewals of Psychoanalysis. Chicago and London: College of Chicago Press. 125-139.

Berry, C (2008). “Cinema: From Overseas Import to International Model.” In Kam Louie, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Trendy Chinese language Tradition (Cambridge Companions to Tradition). Cambridge: Cambridge College Press. pp. 297-318.

Boym, S (2002). The Way forward for Nostalgia. New York: Primary Books.

Cartier, C (2010). “Energy Performs: Various Efficiency Artwork and City Area within the Political Lifetime of the Metropolis.” In Louie, Okay. ed, Hong Kong Tradition: Phrase and Picture. Hong Kong: Hong Kong College Press. pp.  25-40.

Castells, M (1989). The Informational Metropolis. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cheung, R (2016). “Johnnie To and Sparrow.” In New Hong Kong Cinema: Transitions to Turning into Chinese language in 21st-Century East Asia. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books. pp.  123-27.

Clarke, D (2010). “The Haunted Metropolis: Hong Kong and Its City Others.” In Louie, Okay. ed., Hong Kong Tradition: Phrase and Picture. Hong     Kong: Hong Kong College Press. pp.  41-54.

Freud, Sigmund (1915). “Mourning and Melancholia.” In James Strachey (ed.), The Commonplace Version of the Full Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XIV. London: Hogarth Press. pp. 243-258.

Kozo, (2008). “Sparrow.” Love Hong Kong Movie. Out there at: [Accessed 1st May 2018]

Lee, Vivian p. Y (2011). “Contested Heritage: Cinema, Collective Reminiscence, and the Politics of Native Heritage in Hong Kong.” In Yau Shuk-ting, Kinnia, ed., East Asian Cinema and Cultural Heritage: From China, Hong Kong, Taiwan to Japan and South Korea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp.  53-79.

Louie, Okay (2008). “Defining Trendy Chinese language Tradition.” In Louie, Okay., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Trendy Chinese language Tradition (Cambridge Companions to Tradition). Cambridge: Cambridge College Press. pp. 1-20.

Zarrow, P (2008). “Social and Political Developments: The Making of The Twentieth-Century Chinese language State.” In Kam Louise, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Trendy Chinese language Tradition (Cambridge Companions to Tradition). Cambridge: Cambridge College Press. pp. 20-46.

* * *

All photographs are screenshots from the DVD.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email