Though they have improved since I last mentioned them back in December, my mind-grapes are still not yet producing any sweet wines. My attempts at a formal review of ISABELLA all turned out to read like they were written by the guys who write CAT-III movies for Sophie Ngan Chin-Man and Grace Lam Nga-Si rather than the refined prose of Cicero. I have to hand it to Kozo, Tim Youngs and Kenneth Brorsson up in Scandinavia for consistently churning out review after review of Hong Kong movies. (I should also mention the crew from Hong Kong Cinema: View from the Brooklyn Bridge: Big Brian and YTSL.) After starting and stopping a few attempts at an ISABELLA review, I developed a deepened respect for those who can express their opinions without giving away what happens in the movie.
Abandoning the formal review, I have decided to go with the new-fangled, 21st Century, “running diary” format. A few words of warning: The running diary contains spoilers (so click here if you want to get to the non-spoiler part) and my “observations” are only slightly more insightful than Paris Hilton saying “that’s hot”. Instead of offering penetrating analysis, I’m hoping to create the sense that you are sitting on the couch watching the movie with me — a pot of Ti Kuan Yin tea on the coffee table in front of us. I would offer you some potato chips, nachos, pretzels, popcorn and wasabi-flavoured rice crackers but, these days, I don’t have enough saliva to lick a stamp so I don’t keep that stuff around any more. There is, however, some strawberry ice cream in the freezer.
On with the show (timings are approximate):
0:00:36: The “Not Brothers” logo is so big, I thought for a second that I put the wrong movie in the DVD player. Speaking of production company logos, I’ve always thought the one for One Hundred Years of Film is pretty cool — with the spikes and the picture of Guan Yu.
0:02:45: See, the “Isabella” title card is 1/3 the size of the “Not Brothers” logo.
0:02:57: Who’s that creepy glasses-wearing guy hitting on Isabella Leong Lok-Si? Shawn Yue Man-Lok? Man, those “I usually don’t like these places” and “give up the forest for a tree” pick-up lines are so lame. What’s next? “If your right leg was Christmas and your left leg was Easter, would you let me spend some time up between the holidays?”
“There’s a quiet cafe in Taipa” … but by “cafe” I mean my bedroom and “Taipa” I mean my flat.
0:06:04: Look at all those bottles of Carlsberg beer on the table. I wonder if they are sponsors.
0:07:21: Is that Isabella Leong lying naked next to Chapman To Man-Chat? Ewww … she’s 18, 19 years old so she’s of age, but still, ewww …
0:08:08: Wow, look at that gut on Chapman To. You can tell this isn’t one of those disposable “idol” films, no idol would let themselves look unflattering on screen unless it was for a serious film or they were going for an acting award.
0:09:48: An intertitle advancing the plot by using history. Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung used history and intertitles in AV as well. I wonder if this is going to become a part of the Edmond Pang movie drinking game, joining such Pang staples as the main characters smoking like a chimney and brief shots of the back of Tim Youngs’ head.
0:10:42: Watching Anthony Wong Chau-Sang eat is making me hungry for hotpot. This scene between Wong and To is an interesting way to fill-in plot though.
0:12:59: Isabella Leong’s character isn’t 18 yet. Great, statutory rape. Are we supposed to like Chapman To’s character? If we are, then this isn’t the way to make him sympathetic.
Ordering her to deny ever sleeping with him? What a gentleman.
0:14:07: Hmm … she’s his daughter and her name is Cheung Bik-Yan. Hmm …
0:15:08: That looks like one of the Boy’z — Stephen Cheung Chi-Hang. I wonder how Boy’z are doing. If I recall correctly, Kenny Kwan Chi-Ban left and EEG got a new guy to work with Stephen Cheung. Boy bands, the kind that are pre-fabricated by music studios and not the ones that start up organically in a garage band or something, are so hard to get going. After all, you just have to go see the definition for “boy band” in the Urban Dictionary to get a sense of how most people see them. I wonder if Boy’z are still riding Twins’ coattail. Things to add to the “got to Google” list after the film.
0:16:37: Now Isabella Leong is making me hungry for spaghetti.
0:16:47: Did Cheung Bik-Yan just admit to having sex with someone she knew was her father? Incest. I haven’t been this grossed out since Octavia went down on Octavian.
0:17:36: Now we have a shot of Chapman To smoking next to a slot machine. This is one of the things that bug me about Edmond Pang films — a lot of smoking. I think the characters in AV did this too. I’m with Paul Fonoroff on this one — it’s neither sexy nor cool.
0:17:47: Hmm… simplified Chinese on the slot machine buttons. I thought traditional Chinese was used in Macau? Oh well, another sign of simplified’s growing encroachment on the territory of traditional. The only time I was in Macau, 1987, I was too young to be allowed into casinos so I can’t say for sure that they haven’t always been simplified. I seem to recall that there were slot machines on the ferry to Macau as well but, again, I was too young to be allowed in the roped-off section. Another thing to Google after the film.
0:18:23: For a guy who just found out he slept with his daughter, Shing (Chapman To) is taking it pretty calmly. If it was me, I’d be all nauseous and looking desperately for the memory-wiping service from ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND.
0:19:18: Ah, so Shing didn’t sleep with Isabella, er, Bik-Yan. It was a hooker. He’s already a crooked cop who fathered a kid when he was a teenager. Incest would have made the character completely unsympathetic and virtually irredeemable.
0:21:54: Isabella Leong’s doing a pretty good job of acting. I don’t think she has a huge screen presence though. Her “screen magnetism” isn’t leading lady level screen magnetism. Your eyes aren’t immediately drawn to her when she’s on screen. Nevertheless, she’s pretty good. A pleasant surprise because with the EEG and pop idol baggage, you sort of expect something different than what you are getting here.
0:22:25: Hey, it’s Jim “you f–kin’ stupid generation” Chim Sui-Man playing the landlord. The “Jim Chim appearance” is another addition for the drinking game.
Still waiting for the Tim Youngs appearance.
0:23:03: Maybe I’ve watched too many years of LAW & ORDER and NYPD BLUE but I can’t believe the Jim Chim character let Shing up into Bik-Yan’s apartment because it was “police business”. Let’s see, Shing has got a bandage on his forehead and blood on his shirt. How many cops do you see walking around like that? You’d think as cantankerous as that landlord was, he’d tell Shing to come back with a search warrant instead of caving in to Shing’s demands.
0:25:25: Isabella Leong is yelling out “Isabella” without a “Chinglish” accent. I’m guessing this means she didn’t grow up in Hong Kong.
0:28:12: The “Missing Dog” poster is written in traditional Chinese so I guess that Macau doesn’t use simplified after all. Then again, this is a movie so who knows? I’m still going to have to hit Google after the show.
0:28:21: Seeing all those “Missing Dog” posters on the wall just gave me a flashback to the scene in CRAZY N’ THE CITY where Eason Chan Yik-Shun and Joey Yung Tso-Yi are taking down posters as Francis Ng Chun-Yu is putting them up. Good times. Do yourself a favour, if you haven’t seen CRAZY N’ THE CITY yet, look for it. Time well spent.
0:29:25: Shing shows that he’s willing to let Bik-Yan stay with him by just handing her a pillow and a blanket.
Communicating without talking. They’re already a normal Chinese family!
0:31:06: Is that Josie Ho Chiu-Yi? She looks so different here than from what I’ve seen of her before. Then again, I haven’t really seen her in anything but the papers since TVB’s A ROAD AND A WILL (香港人在廣州) and that was, gosh, ten years ago.
0:33:00: Here’s Anthony Wong eating again. Now, I’m hungry for noodles. I’m not sure if moving the story along using intertitles and these Anthony Wong scenes is such a good idea. It’s making the movie a bit nebulous.
Looking at the photo of Isabella, Bik-Yan and Bik-Yan’s mom in the “Missing Dog” poster, Anthony Wong’s character says: “Which one am I looking for?”
Anthony Wong kills me.
0:35:29: Shing: Condoms? I don’t use them.
Bik-Yan: I know, or else I wouldn’t be here. I don’t want a sister.
0:36:32: Here’s Shing buying a gun. Are the Gods of Foreshadowing making an appearance? Introducing a gun in the story … this can’t be a good development for Shing.
0:38:11: Carlsberg beer again. They’ve definitely got to be a sponsor.
0:38:55: Nice symbolism with Bik-Yan and Shing lugging her bags, in unison, down the street. Father-daughter starting to click and get in rhythm.
0:40:00: Derek Tsang Kwok-Cheung as a nerdy-looking student. He also looks off enough to whack Shing. Another appearance by the Gods of Foreshadowing?
0:40:09: Bik-Yan is ironing her school uniform.
Does this mean we’re going to get a shot of her wearing it? You know, for the uniform fetishists out there?
0:40:39: There’s the gun again. The Gods of Foreshadowing are starting to rumble …
0:40:47: … and here’s the uniform shot for the fetishists. The way Bik-Yan is referring to Shing as “her man” is a little creepy.
0:47:28: Bik-Yan: “I won’t say anything until my lawyer arrives.”
0:48:18: This is a nice little scene with Isabella Leong singing along to Anita Mui Yim-Fong’s 夢伴 (Dream Companion). The lyrics, about not being able to recapture the past, matches up quite nicely with the plot points of the movie.
Is anyone else having a flashback to the scene where Natalie Portman sings to Jean Reno in LEON (aka THE PROFESSIONAL)?
0:51:58: More father-daughter bonding … more Carlsberg bottles.
0:52:56: Shing helps a drunk Bik-Yan to bed.
Nice parallel to the stumbling-to-bed scene at the beginning of movie.
0:56:53: Bik-Yan is singing “Dream Companion” again. “Mom loved this song.”
Not surprising since it dovetails perfectly to the situation Bik-Yan’s mother found herself in. Ugh, this is making me feel old. I remember getting the cassette — back in the ancient times before CDs and mp3s — that “Dream Companion” is on — 壞女孩 (Bad Girl). I was at the HK Coliseum for one of the then record-setting 28 concerts Anita Mui held in late 1987. I can’t remember if she performed “Dream Companion” but I remember she did “Bad Girl” and “Why, Why, Tell Me Why?”. I also remember her “Arabian princess” look and Grasshopper making an appearance. Man, this means that I may be old enough to be Bik-Yan’s father. Sigh …
1:05:17: I know Bik-Yan is trying to drive all the other women away but acting like Shing is her lover is creepy.
This “Bik-Yan and Shing’s women” sequence is going on too long. I just paused the DVD to see who’s winning the curling game at the Tournament of Hearts between Team Prince Edward Island and Team Manitoba. Jennifer Jones of Manitoba is leading Suzanne Gaudet of PEI by a score of 8 to 2. It’s the seventh end so it’s pretty much over for PEI. OK, back to the movie …
1:08:16: Carlsberg has definitely got to be a sponsor. A girl wearing a Carlsberg shirt has just shown up at the door carrying a bag filled, naturally, with bottles of Carlsberg beer.
Actually, the Carlsberg product integration isn’t that bad. It’s fairly subtle in this movie. It’s not a DRINK DRANK DRUNK situation. In that movie, you had signs for Prime Credit Limited in the background and billboards CGI-ed into the movie. The only way it could have been more noticeable is if the following exchange happened:
Michel (Daniel Wu): Can I have some cash? I need money to buy supplies for the restaurant.
Siu-Man (Miriam Yeung): I just spent our last $1000 on fixtures.
Michel: But how can a restaurant function without food?
Siu-Man: I know, we can get a small business line-of-credit from Prime Credit Limited — a subsidiary of Standard Chartered PLC. I hear they offer low-interest loans geared toward entrepreneurs like us, one of their many innovative financial products and services aimed at delivering tailor-made and flexible solutions to customers.
Michel: Do you think we qualify?
Siu-Man: We should. I’ll check their website, PrimeCredit.com.hk, for details. Or I could talk to some of their friendly and courteous staff at one of the 31 branches they have in Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories.
Michel: Excellent. It would be great if we could get financing from Prime Credit Limited.
1:09:18: That’s some fake-looking vomit. Sadly, I know because I became intimately acquainted with vomiting last year.
1:10:30: A lingering shot of Isabella Leong’s legs. She’s also wearing a school uniform. Am I supposed to be turned on? Because I’m not. Is it because I’m not in the demographic that would find Isabella Leong sexy or is it because Isabella Leong doesn’t burn up the screen? I think it’s the latter because a shot of Crystal Liu Yifei in a similar situation would probably seize my attention.
1:11:03: The Gods of Foreshadowing smile as “Portuguese food” (a.k.a the gun) makes another appearance.
1:11:50: This lighthouse sequence is supposed to signify something but I’m too dim to see it. Can someone out there enlighten me?
1:17:09: The Gods of Ominousness have taken over from the Gods of Foreshadowing as some bad guys deliver a message to Shing. I fear we’re headed for a tragic ending. When it comes to dramas, Hong Kong Cinema is the Lucius Vorenus of cinemas — given a choice between a happy outcome and a miserable outcome, always pick the miserable outcome.
1:20:59: More creepy talk, from Bik-Yan, of Shing as her lover rather than her father. Derek Tsang is a pretty decent actor. He’s completely different here than he was in AV. Finally, a “son of …” actor that makes you forget he’s a “son of …” actor. By the way, if you didn’t know, Derek Tsang is Eric Tsang Chi-Wai’s son.
1:21:52: “As long as it is presentable, it’ll do.”
Nice callback to the 拜神 (worshipping spirits) scene at 0:59:00.
1:25:08: Hey, it’s Vincent Wan Yeung-Ming! Miu Yan-Fung (苗人鳳) from TVB’s crappy 1999 remake of FLYING FOX OF THE SNOWY MOUNTAIN. So Shing isn’t Bik-Yan’s father. Interesting.
1:27:20: Ella, Bik-Yan’s mother, comes out from the abortion clinic not seeing young Shing.
I thought for sure we’d see Young Shing hiding behind a wall or something as the camera pulled away. It’d make his seem like less of a jerk and further his redemption arc.
1:29:21: Bik-Yan starts crying and says, “don’t leave me”, to Shing after revealing that she found Isabella.
Perhaps the cisplatin has eaten away the sentimentality cells in my heart because this scene is leaving me cold. I know it’s supposed to be a moment of great emotion but I’m just hitting here with my eyebrow cocked like a Vulcan saying: “fascinating”. Again, maybe it’s because I’m dim, but the Isabella the Dog symbolism isn’t doing anything for me.
1:32:05: Shing tosses the gun away into the reservoir.
I guess we aren’t going to get a tragic ending after all.
1:32:55: Derek Tsang’s character, the nerdy school guy, confronts Shing in an alley.
Maybe I spoke too soon. This looks like a “I’m going to save Bik-Yan by knifing her evil boyfriend in the gut” situation.
1:33:50: Ah, so it wasn’t a tragic knife scene but an Oprah “Moment of Enlightenment”™ scene.
1:35:12: Dinner sequence between Bik-Yan and Shing.
This whole sequence is filed with symbols of change — from the story behind the Rolex to the home-cooked meal (instead of the take-out that they ate at the beginning). It’s a nice scene but it would have been more powerful if the Rolex was introduced earlier in the film. You know, if Shing told one of his lady friends not to touch his Rolex or something. Here, the Rolex bit sort of feels tacked on.
1:36:20: “Promise me, when I get out, let’s quit smoking.”
So the smoking is a symbol too. OK, but it was still a bit annoying to see on screen — especially since Bik-Yan’s mother died from lung cancer. You’d think watching a loved one die of lung cancer would be a powerful deterrent against smoking.
1:43:30: Bik-Yan sobs as she holds Isabella.
This dog thing still isn’t doing anything for me. Why isn’t it working? I’ve got two eyes and a heart.
1:44:35: Bik-Yan is still creepily referring to Shing as her man. What’s that about?
Credits: Pauline Yeung was the “tea lady” for this film. It’s not the kind of credit you’d see in a Hollywood film. One of the things you have to love about Hong Kong.
Tim Youngs shows up in the “producers would like to acknowledge” section. Does this qualify as a Tim Youngs appearance for the Edmond Pang movie drinking game? Yes, I think it does.
By the way, in case you were hanging on the edge of your seat, the Jennifer Jones rink won 9-4.
CLOSING THOUGHTS: With ISABELLA, Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung continues his climb to the top ranks of Hong Kong movie directordom. It is, without question, a well-made film. The music, the lush cinematography and the acting are all first-rate. However, the storytelling left me cold. The father-daughter plot and Shing’s arc of redemption were supposed to be emotionally moving but somehow ended up feeling empty and shallow. My brain registered all the tugs at my heart strings and sent the appropriate messages to my heart telling it to feel something at the end of the film but, somewhere along the way, there was a malfunction at the junction and all my heart felt was that I should watch WHERE A GOOD MAN GOES — another bad man-turns-good movie set in Macau — again someday. I think the problem lies in the writing for the Bik-Yan character. She doesn’t feel authentic. She seems more like a vehicle for the film’s agenda than a credible, actual person and — in a film like ISABELLA that relies heavily on mood and atmosphere — it disrupts the rhythm and flow of the movie.
Nevertheless, watching ISABELLA is an enjoyable experience. You don’t go away feeling resentful about having wasted your time. A sentiment, sadly, that I’ve felt all too often after watching a HK film. Moreover, the scene where Bik-Yan sings “Dream Companion” to Shing is being enshrined in my pantheon of “Memorable Hong Kong Movie Scenes” alongside scenes like: the standoff between Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Mad Dog in HARD-BOILED, Chow Yun-Fat and Ti Lung looking down at Hong Kong’s night-time skyline in A BETTER TOMORROW, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang hitting the top of the car in INFERNAL AFFAIRS, the climactic shootouts in EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED and PTU, the almost rape scene in WHERE A GOOD MAN GOES, the scene where Yuen Qiu and Yuen Wah reveal themselves to be masters in KUNG FU HUSTLE and Faye Wong breaking into Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s apartment in CHUNGKING EXPRESS.
As for Isabella Leong Lok-Si, it’s too early in her career for anyone to crown her or condemn her. She gave a good performance in this film but I wonder if it’s a case of underpromise and overdeliver. With ISABELLA, you have a situation where a widely-hyped prospect that EEG has been grooming for years (I remember translating articles about Isabella Leong way back in 2002 when she was a mere 14 years-old) coming off the commercial crapfest that was BUG ME NOT! starring in a movie with the cutie-title ISABELLA. Naturally, you go in thinking that this film is going to stink like previous pop idol movies. Imagine Mariah Carey’s GLITTER being called MARIAH or Britney Spears’ CROSSROADS being called BRITNEY. But then, against expectations, you get a serious film with a serious performance and you end up thinking to yourself: “wow, this girl has got game.” I wonder, though, if this perspective is making people overestimate Isabella Leong’s abilities. It’s sort of like how a football team follows-up a 2-14 season with an 8-8 season. An 8-8 record is still mediocre but, compared to 2-14, it’s pretty good.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be a “crow-mouth” (烏鴉口) caw-cawing and pooh-poohing Isabella Leong. She’s part of the Leung/Leong/Liang clan so I’m rooting for her and hoping she does well. I’m just saying let’s hold off on anointing her as the next Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk or the next “Box Office Queen”. First, as I said during the running diary, I don’t think she has leading lady type screen charisma. She doesn’t command your attention like Zhang Ziyi or Shu Qi or Cecilia Cheung Pak-Chi. Second, I think her singing is more Robin Sparkles “Let’s Go To The Mall” than Anita Mui “Debts of the Heart” (心債). Third, I don’t think she’s as popular as she appears. EEG “froze” her back in October for “temper tantrums”. If she was popular and, more important, profitable, EEG wouldn’t have suspended her. Using another sports analogy, if the star player on a team gets arrested for a DUI, management usually says: “oh, we can’t cut him, ‘innocent until proven guilty’, ‘we have to let due process play out’ and all that”. However, if a back-up player finds himself in trouble with the law, it’s usually: “he’s a cancer on the team, we have to cut him immediately”. The fact that EEG thought they could afford to freeze her means that she probably isn’t raking in Twins money or Joey Yung money. She’s since been reinstated, however, so maybe her clout is growing. EEG initially announced that her suspension was to last a year but it ended up being only three months.
In any event, there is no doubt that Isabella Leong has great potential. Here’s hoping that her management makes judicious decisions that allow her to maximize her potential both artistically and commercially. Here’s hoping that she doesn’t succumb to the “too much, too soon” syndrome and end up finding herself in a Lindsay Lohan situation. So say we all … at least all of us Leungs.
Reader Feedback Time: What did you guys think of the running diary format? Too inane?
I’d love it if someone would share their opinion and enlighten me on the lighthouse scene and the whole dog allegory thing.
Do you think Isabella Leong has high-wattage screen charisma?
Plus, if you were moved by ISABELLA and think that I’m a cold-hearted bastard for not feeling anything, maybe you could help melt my icy heart by telling me how this film got to you.
Image credits: Media Asia (ISABELLA), Long Shong Entertainment Group (DRINK DRANK DRUNK)