This drama is set during the revolutionary time in Shanghai, based on a novel of the same name of Hai Fei. During the republican revolution, Chen Shen is a secret agent under Special Operations Executive Director Bi Zhongliang, among the agents called “sparrow” (similar to the program “zero” in Japan)
Cast & Credits
First off, would I recommend the drama? Yes. Rewatch? Potentially, after some time has passed, though personally I'm not one to rewatch many dramas, no matter how great of an impression it left. Did I like it? Of course, and I was hooked like nothing else mattered, which led me to binge all 61 episodes in less than 4 days.
Now, onto the details:
I watched this series on TV at first, then on Youtube, both of which had no English subtitles. It took me a while to decide to continue watching because the first three episodes start very slow, and they're mostly there to set up the main characters' positions. From what I saw in the comments on every episode, every watcher seemed to greatly dislike the female MC, Xu Bi Cheng, to the point where they blamed her (as a character) for every mishap in the story, or claimed she ruined the drama. I have to admit, I didn't particularly like her either at the beginning, nor in the first twenty or so episodes that followed, because she was pretty clumsy (especially considering her job as an agent) and tended to cause trouble for the other MCs, which wouldn't be so bad if she would actually learn from enduring all the dire consequences that others have to suffer from as a result of her own recklessness and selfishness. Throughout the drama, she continues to have other clean up her messes and never loses that vexing everyone-will-take-care-of-me perception - until one certain event becomes her turning point. Thus, this is a bit of a let-down as she IS the female MC so we automatically set up high expectations for her performance and role from the beginning; however, it could also be down to the actress selection, since Zhou Dong Yu, though feminine and petite and perhaps fitting a Shanghainese beauty ideal in that period, has an expression that makes her look 10 years younger and perpetually petrified like a deer caught in headlights (i.e anything but mature, sophisticated, and steady in mind). But worry not, because in the last arc of the drama where things get to their climax, we do see her finally think more rationally about her actions before carrying them out, and manages to play a part in saving others, including the MC: Chen Shen.
Chen Shen and Xu Bi Cheng's relationship? I liked it. I think it was simple, straightforward, and pure. Considering all the manipulating, strategizing, and assassinating that occurred constantly around them, I think their love was refreshing and heart-warming from when it started to the end, regardless of how XBC herself was as a character for the most part. With such complicated plots like the one in this drama, the relationship drama should be toned down to keep it balanced, which imo this drama did perfectly well.
Plot twists: this drama was full of them, and while some were fairy predictable from the beginning (like who "Sparrow' really was), many did catch me by surprise, and I thoroughly enjoyed the guessing/watching process. The drama was also never short of touching moments, where some did trigger some tears, especially towards the end, which you'd expect from the overall vibe of the drama and its intro song.
Music was used beautifully at just the right moments, and the quality of filming is definitely not to be worried about.
The antagonists were truly masterpieces of the drama, for it was a struggle between hating/wanting them dead and loving/wanting them to survive with the MCs the whole way. The relationship between the MC Chen Shen and his closest friend Bi Zhong Liang was unique among all the MC-Antagonist relations I've come across in the dramas I've watched. Just this focal relationship alone should make many people want to watch this drama.
Finally, the ending. The ending is always a huge deciding factor as to whether or not a drama will become a favourite, or an absolutely terrible experience you wish you hadn't set foot upon: because what happens in the end can either ruin everything that has happened till then, or make it all worthwhile. For dramas like these, set in the revolutionary period of Shanghai, I always feel dread towards the end because tragedies have become so common, even as a plot twist in happy-go-lucky dramas, never mind in such a suspenseful, intense drama like this one. I can say that the ending was fitting and well-rounded, and I am satisfied, though I won't say it wasn't bittersweet or that it didn't leave a slight pang in my heart, which was to be expected from the beginning.
A masterful piece that is worth your time; even if suspense/mystery isn't your usual genre, please give it a try.
I wouldn't recommend it to people who are only into 1. straightforward romance, 2. lots of physical action. It has regular outbursts of action every few episodes alternated with strategizing and processing. It doesn't have many quests neither, only one overarching search of a McGuffin file. (Boy, was The Emperor and his jar a good preparation for this one.)
Just like Nirvana in Fire, Sparrow throws the viewer headfirst into already ripened events and flows like a chapterless novel. It has arcs when a new character is introduced or a focus shifts, and they have consequences afterwards.
The show belongs to Reveal rather than Develop school of character writing. The characterization is rough around the edges at first (it starts from a bulletpoint list of traits - for example, MC drinks Kvass, can't shoot due to a past trauma and puts an act of the playboy and gambler who'd rather be a barber than an agent), but turns into something alive and humane thanks to giving characters an opportunity to form alliances and bond. You can tag it with 'bromance' etc, but it's far beyond it. MC doesn't monopolize the screentime. There's a love triangle/square/meandering hexagon (with tentacles - you should see my chart) at the core, but it's not used as a plot propeller and a sole source of conflict. Close antagonists are humanized. It's chock-full of layered, multifaceted characters with their own mannerism. A line between faked and real relationship is blurred. I'm afraid to say anything more not to get into spoilers.
The first half (one third perhaps?) is mostly devoted to damage control and it lulls the viewer into thinking danger can always be redirected to scapegoats, and then things get real, breaking that expectation. The plot is stretched between an urge to maintain the status quo and a sense of urgency, making this desire impossible. Having spent so much time with all the characters and seeing their circumstances, it's hard to condemn those who on the scale of greyness fall into lukewarm/opportunistic territory or tilt toward derangment (especially since they're so charming or have grand entrances…). As if they weren't already, things get so tangled and tensed no single solution can fix them satisfyingly. The file is just an excuse to watch it all happening. Save yourself the frustration and don't expect more from it.
The show is beautiful to look at, crafted with an attention to detail and the use of music greatly improves the experience. More than once I was just spacing out looking at the colours changing or rewinding little pieces of fun editing of facial expressions/general movement like a cat pulling out tissues out of the box. It's definitely a rewatch material for me, both for just enjoying it visually and for re-immersing into that world. Highly recommended. Safety first!