VIFF 2019: Wild Sparrow

Wild Sparrow opens with a set of images so obvious you’ll be certain you know where it’s going. You won’t be wrong, but I’m guessing you’ll still be surprised. It’s a quiet, melancholy little movie that begins in the placid beauty of the rainy mountains and somehow manages to feel just as wondrous as it follows its child protagonist to the concrete menace of the city. What happens there, and eventually back in the mountains, is an old story made new.

Little Han has lived in his great-grandmother’s house for years, surrounded by lush greenery and an almost hypnotically slow-moving rural life. He’s either adopted her rhythms or he was born with them: attentive, unhurried, comfortable in silence, Han has a considerate quiet even in his biggest moments of prepubescent excitement and curiosity. Even before we see him there, we could have guessed that he’s exceptional in school. He’s an observer, and he hasn’t yet learned to guard his interests, so with a dearth of dialogue, we learn about him mostly by watching him watch others.

His mother Ali visits, and we can glimpse the tempo and glamour of the city in her. Soon enough, she sends for Han to join her. Emotional suspense builds as she happily greets him at the bus stop, directing him through busy streets to a small apartment block with young street dancers killing time outside. We don’t know what kind of life she’s built for herself here, and, we guess, neither does Han. She has a sparse but cozy bedroom prepared for him, and she introduces him to a kind-faced older man who takes them to lunch. The man shows Han how to cut a steak and makes the kind of comments to Ali that only an idiot would think a kid couldn’t see through 

The film’s middle slowly reveals the circumstances of Ali’s present and some of the past choices that have lead to it. The whole time, we wonder how much or how little Han is understanding. The film shows us more of Ali’s life than Han is privy to, but as he spends more time in the city, a tension builds in his body, and his stare seems to become more piercing. This is the first appearance of the child actor, Yu-Hsia Kao, but it’s a memorable on. Something about those eyes seems to look at you, too 

Of course, a reckoning will come, and Han’s world will be irrevocably changed. Wild Sparrow is a movie for today, and ends like many of the year’s best films have—with an anger and a sadness that you can hold onto. This is, at its heart, a largely familiar coming-of-age tale. The way it leaves you feeling, though, tells you a lot about the age we live in.