February 12, 2008 / 9:01 AM / 10 years ago

Johnnie To preserves old Hong Kong in new film

BERLIN (Reuters) - Director Johnnie To aims to preserve something of the old Hong Kong in new film “Sparrow” before his native city changes forever.

Director Johnnie To poses during a photocall to present his film "Sparrow" running in the competition at the 58th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, February 11, 2008. REUTERS/Johannes Eisele

In competition at the Berlin Film Festival, “Sparrow” is a light-hearted story of a group of pick-pockets led by Kei who become entranced by a beautiful, mysterious young woman who is constantly running away from someone.

When they discover that she is trying to escape the clutches of a big gangster boss, they cannot resist trying to save her, no matter what the risk.

The action takes place in Hong Kong’s old streets and alleyways, and the nostalgic feel and upbeat soundtrack led several critics to compare it to the 1964 French musical hit “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”

“The main point of the movie is to capture the flavor of Hong Kong,” To told reporters after a press screening.

“The city is undergoing a lot of changes and the Hong Kong government has torn down a lot of buildings so in my film I wanted to capture the old Hong Kong.

“The profession of the pick-pocket is actually dying out as we enter a new era, and in way these pick-pockets are a bygone age of Hong Kong and that’s why they are in the movie,” he added, speaking through an interpreter.

Asked why the movie had such a Western feel, he added:

“For me Hong Kong is a city that is very Chinese but also had a lot of influences from abroad. This mix of East and West is something very natural that I wanted to convey in the film.”

To said “Sparrow” had taken more than three years to make and could have taken longer had he been allowed.

“After so much time shooting a movie the investor will ask you to wrap it up at some point and so I finished it.”

To, 52, a favorite at European festivals and best known in the West for crime movies like “The Mission” and “Election,” teams up once again with actor Simon Yam, who also appeared in the director’s “PTU,” “Election,” “Exiled” and “Triangle.”

To said he believed Hong Kong and mainland Chinese cinema would gradually merge over time, although there were still important differences, particularly in the area of censorship.

“Making films in Hong Kong, you still enjoy complete freedom, so that is an advantage Hong Kong directors have today.”

And Yam, who plays Kei opposite Taiwanese actress Kelly Lin in the female lead, hoped Hong Kong cinema would preserve some of its distinctive qualities.

“As Hong Kong film becomes part of Chinese cinema, I hope it directors can still make something that is uniquely Hong Kong. In this film, the streets we shot in may be gone in 10 years so it was important we captured them.”

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Editing by Giles Elgood

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