Sparrow 麻雀 premieres almost a month earlier than Rookie Agent Rouge, another c-drama in the spy thriller genre. How the head start will affect the ratings remains to be seen.
To that end, Sparrow may not need the advantage of time because it is intense, turning up the conflict so early in the game that I am at the edge of my seat as the developments unfold though admittedly, part of me wishes for a tighter setup to give the narrative the depth and gravity that it deserves.
Episode 1 begins with an introduction of the political situation in Shanghai during the year 1941. Chinese revolutionaries are waging a silent war against the puppet regime installed by the Japanese.
A female spy (Li Xiao Ran) instructs An Liu San to put up a flyer meant to activate Agent Sparrow but he gets caught in the act.
At a posh nightclub, Chen Shen (Li Yi Feng) saunters in with Li Xiao Nan (Kan Qing Zi). He is an agent working for the puppet regime and she is a popular actress.
Throughout the evening, he gallivants around numerous women to flaunt his playboy persona but it turns out to be a ruse as he heads for a secret rendezvous with the female spy.
Back at headquarters, An Liu San is subjected to brutal torture and he falters after Bi Zhong Liang (Zhang Lu Yi) threatens to kill his family.
It is revealed that Chen Shen is an undercover for the Communist party and that he has been hiding within enemy ranks without interference for the past three years.
Hence, he is surprised to learn that his sister-in-law Shen Qiu Xia is also his superior who operates under the codename Prime Minister.
The two get reacquainted and Qiu Xia informs Chen Shen of his mission to dig out the hidden location of the Japanese spy network. Qiu Xia tells Chen Shen to use the codename 023 and to reach her via his informant called Doctor.
However, things go awry upon the arrival of Bi Zhong Liang whose men chase after Qiu Xia just as she is about to depart.
Qiu Xia is shot before Chen Shen's eyes yet he has no choice but to feign a smile as he asks for her identity, "Is she a Communist or a Nationalist?"
As a team lead under Bi Zhong Liang's command, Chen Shen pretends to take part in the investigation whilst tying up loose ends that may point directly back to himself. However, Bi Zhong Liang is not easily fooled as he finds something amiss.
Despite the imminent danger, Chen Shen heads for the hospital where Qiu Xia is held captive, determined to save her at any cost.
First Impressions: Sparrow is conceptually the kind of drama that is driven by its characters and at the center is Chen Shen, a man forever wearing the mask of his worst enemy. He may be Li Yi Feng's most challenging role to date and as a fan, I really hope for a breakthrough.
His character in and of itself hints of a desperation to shed his burdensome facade. And in fact, Chen Shen voices out his haplessness during a lengthy dialogue with his sister-in-law yet it doesn't strike a cord with me, perhaps due to LYF's acting or the lack of a backstory.
Nonetheless, it is only the beginning and I reckon there will be plenty of chances to build up the emotional turmoil, especially given the fatal bromance between Chen Shen and Bi Zhong Liang.
Zhong Liang must have a shred of decency in spite of his stance as a traitor, adding a nuanced complexity to their convoluted relationship.
Even though I get the sense that Chen Shen's conundrum seems manufactured for the sake of the plot, the conflict however forced makes Sparrow a thrilling ride and its subdued tone, styling and pacing is viscerally engaging. During a war-torn era where living can be worse than death (hint: gruesome torture scenes), it becomes extra frightening.
Then again, I just finished Diguiser a couple weeks back so I may be extra critical at this point. Is anyone else puzzled that Chen Shen is not Sparrow but Agent 023? It certainly is news to me.