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Series / Sparrow

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From left to right: Li Xiaonan, Shen Chunxia, Chen Shen, Xu Bicheng, Bi Zhongliang, Su Sanxing, and Tang Shanhai.

Sparrow (Chinese: 麻雀; pinyin: Má Què;) is a 2016 Chinese republican-era spy drama, starring Li Yifeng, Zhou Dongyu, Zhang Luyi, Zhang Ruoyun, Kan Qingzi, Yin Zheng, Li Xiaoran and Wang Jinsong, based on the novel of the same name by Hai Fei. Set in 1940s Shanghai, the series follows the story of Chen Shen, a communist agent with the code name Sparrow, who works undercover as the head of Operations Team 1 of the Public Security Bureau's Special Operations Department under the new, Japanese-controlled government to try and obtain information about a secret Japanese plan to destroy China.

Chen Shen (Li Yifeng) is a former barber who, as a soldier on the battlefield, once saved the life of a fellow soldier named Bi Zhongliang (Zhang Luyi), who in turn took him in as a younger brother in thanks.

Now the leader of the Special Operations Department under Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Bi Zhongliang has Chen Shen appointed as his right-hand man and the head of Operations Team 1—but despite the outwards appearance of trust, he begins to harbor deep suspicions that Chen Shen is Sparrow when he fails to capture the communist agent Prime Minister (Li Xiaoran), and the two of them play a deadly game of cat and mouse to try and outsmart the other even as the situation continues to become more complicated with the arrival of Xu Bicheng (Zhou Dongyu), Chen Shen's former student who he shares a romantic history with, and Tang Shanhai (Zhang Ruoyun), the newly appointed head of Operations Team 2, both actually a pair of nationalist spies codenamed Foxglove pretending to be a married couple to also infiltrate the Special Operations Department.

The show, with 61 episodes, can be found on Viki with English subtitles.

This show contains examples of:

  • All for Nothing: Chen Shen's attempt to save Shen Chunxia, aka Prime Minister who is also his sister-in-law given that despite endangering his cover and increasing Bi Zhongliang's suspicion of him to do so, Bi Zhongliang has a sniper assassinate her before they can reach their destination anyway.

  • Assassination Attempt: Chen Shen is on the receiving end of a few of these (from nationalist forces) due to him being perceived as a Chinese traitor. Same goes for Bi Zhongliang.

  • Badass in a Nice Suit: Arguably, most of the main male cast.

  • Bathroom Search Excuse: Used by Xu Bicheng to try and get warning out to the nationalist bases in Shanghai when they realize they've been betrayed by Su Sanxing. It completely fails.

  • Being Watched: Most of the people undercover at the Special Operations Department know that this applies to them and act accordingly...usually, anyway.

  • Bluff the Eavesdropper: Pulled by Chen Shen, working with Li Xiaonan and pretending to have a mild lover's spat, creating an excuse for Tang Shanhai (who then swaps clothes with Chen Shen) to leave the building and shake his tail so he can contact the Hurricane Squad.

  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Bi Zhongliang sees Chen Shen as this.

  • The Charmer: Chen Shen, and he uses this to its full advantage, both to get close to people and as part of his Obfuscating Stupidity disguise.

  • Code Name: "Sparrow" and "Foxglove".

  • Commitment Issues: The women in Chen Shen's life all accuse him of having this due to his insistence on staying single (and his constant flirting with girls at nightclubs).

  • Crazy Jealous Guy: A mild version, but Tang Shanhai arguably dipped into this due to his attempt to Murder the Hypotenuse (Chen Shen) by proxy...

  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Tang Shanhai, who ends up getting buried alive, is subjected to one of these, as well as Su Sanxing, who is executed via mauling by dog.

  • Doesn't Like Guns: Chen Shen, who suffers from PTSD from shooting a child soldier back when he was on the battlefield, and has been unable to pull a trigger since (using a pair of barber's shears as his weapons instead).

  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Despite Bi Zhongliang being extremely cruel and ruthless to his enemies and pretty cold to his subordinates, he cares very much for his wife, and is downright warm and friendly towards Chen Shen (despite having him watched very carefully behind his back).
    • Also, Su Sanxing, who at best is borderline psychotic towards his enemies, genuinely cares for his sister.

  • Idiot Ball: For a bunch of supposedly highly trained spies, they sure like to occasionally loudly discuss their plans with each other out in the open and right in the middle of the Special Operations Department which they are trying to be undercover in, usually leading to one of Bi Zhongliang's men overhearing it, reporting to Bi Zhongliang, and then Chen Shen having to pull some sort of cover-up out of his ass.

  • Like Brother and Sister: Despite Li Xiaonan constantly telling everyone that Chen Shen's her boyfriend and treating him as such, he shoots her down time and time again by saying that she's only like a little sister to him, and he's happy to be a brother to her, but not her boyfriend.

  • Love Triangle: Tang Shanhai is in love with Xu Bicheng, who is in love with Chen Shen, who is "dating" Li Xiaonan...

  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: In Su Sanxing's eyes, anyway, given that his personal reason for betraying the nationalists and going to work for the new government was because he felt like the nationalist bureacracy wasn't giving him his due.

  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Xu Bicheng accuses Tang Shanhai of this when he has Chen Shen marked as the first target for nationalist spies to assassinate under the excuse of eliminating Chinese traitors, despite Chen Shen being a relatively low-ranking official compared to the other targets.

  • Obfuscating Stupidity: As the head of Operations Team 1, Chen Shen pretends to be utterly incompetent in order to explain away the failures that happen under his watch.

  • Publicly Discussing the Secret: Happens quite a few times, though the protagonists don't always manage to get away unscathed...

  • Right-Hand Attack Dog: Ah-Si, Bi Zhongliang's dog who he raised and trained from birth and uses to torture and kill people.

  • Secret Police: Basically what the entire Special Operations Department is.

  • Self-Proclaimed Love Interest: Li Xiaonan to Chen Shen, given that she won't stop telling people she meets that Chen Shen is her boyfriend (and then that he's her fiancé) despite his disagreement.

  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: Su Sanxing, who normally speaks in a soft monotone and uses humble language, is a psychotic torturer in the interrogation room.

  • Spy Versus Spy: Chen Shen, the communist agent, doesn't exactly get off on the right foot with Tang Shanhai and Xu Bicheng at first, especially since they initially don't know that the other party is also working for the Japanese. And even after they've pretty much figured it out, their alliance is still a tenuous one given that they still are working for different organizations.

  • Undercover as Lovers: Xu Bicheng and Tang Shanhai is this, leading to a lot of drama as Tang Shanhai is genuinely in love with Xu Bicheng, while she's still in love with Chen Shen and really wants nothing to do with Tang Shanhai...

  • We Do Not Know Each Other: Initially attempted by Xu Bicheng and Chen Shen, when they come face-to-face again for the first time.

  • When Harry Met Svetlana: Arguably a genderswapped version of this, with Xu Bicheng (nationalist spy) as a "Harry" and Chen Shen (communist spy) as a "Svetlana".

  • Who's Laughing Now?: Su Sanxing at Zeng Shu, when the tables have been flipped post Su Sanxing's betrayal, and now he's Zeng Shu's boss instead of the other way around.