UT, Austin-based film ‘Falling Sparrow’ reaches success in film festival run

Michelle Facio, Life & Arts General Reporter

Justin Powell grew up in Beijing, China, watching martial arts and action films. Inspired by the films he watched as a kid and his own experience in martial arts, he decided to start making his own action films in 2019.

“Falling Sparrow,” a Wuxia or Chinese martial fantasy film, follows a young girl raised by her mother in the American wilderness, who goes on an adventure to seek revenge against her uncle who stole her family sword. Shot in 2020, the film started making rounds in the 2021 festival circuit.

“(‘Falling Sparrow’) was also made out of a desire to make a martial arts film in Austin, Texas, with a largely Austin and UT crew,” said Powell, a radio-television-film and international relations and global studies senior. 

Hannah Ho, UT alumna and “Falling Sparrow” protagonist, never acted before taking the lead in the film. However, like most of the other actors, she held membership in UT’s wushu club. 

“It was intimidating to see 30 people standing around with lights and cameras and for them to call action,” Ho said. “Everyone goes dead silent and everything’s on you. That was pretty daunting. It felt like jumping into a big pool, not knowing how to swim.”

Ho said that Powell, who helped her through the process, wrote the script acknowledging the risk that comes with an inexperienced cast. After shooting “Falling Sparrow,” Ho said she fell in love with acting.

“Falling Sparrow” producer and recent UT alumna, Nikki Blacklock, said she worked with Powell off and on before he asked her to work on this film. Together, they worked alongside many others they had met through UT’s radio-television-film program.

“A lot of the people we brought together for (‘Falling Sparrow,’) we felt were the best people around UT and around Austin that we had worked with,” Blacklock said.

Since featuring at 19 film festivals, including Deep in the Heart Film Festival, Indie Short Fest and WorldFest Houston International Film Festival, Powell said “Falling Sparrow” won festival awards at about 10 showings. 

“I didn’t really know what to expect when I started submitting ‘Falling Sparrow’ to festivals because I’ve heard from people that expressed doubts about me making this film,” Powell said.  “They told me action films don’t really do good at festivals, they don’t like that sort of thing … but I did believe in the project, so I thought that maybe we could break those barriers.”

Powell said “Falling Sparrow” won a special jury award at Deep in the Heart Film Festival.

“There was no action category at this festival, but they also knew that ‘Falling Sparrow’ deserved some sort of award anyway,” Powell said. “They gave us this special jury award for this film that they couldn’t really put in a box.” 

While not yet available to the general public, Powell said anyone interested should follow @fallingsparrowfilm and himself, @ner5o7, on Instagram to find out when “Falling Sparrow” will become available.