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"Check it out! I'm ambidextrous!"

Isabella Leong and Chapman To in Isabella.
Chinese: 伊莎貝拉
Year: 2006
Director: Pang Ho-Cheung
Writer: Pang Ho-Cheung, Jimmy Wan Chi-Man, Derek Tsang Kwok-Cheung, Pang Sau-Wai
Cast: Chapman To Man-Chat, Isabella Leong, Meme Tian, JJ Jia, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Derek Tsang Kwok-Cheung, Shawn Yue, Steven Cheung Chi-Hung, Josie Ho Chiu-Yi, Jim Chim Sui-Man, Wan Yeung-Ming, Jimmy Wan Chi-Man
The Skinny: Touching and beautiful, though calculated and questionably substantial. Edmond Pang's artful drama seems to be proclaiming its own significance rather than actually earning it. However, Pang hits his marks exceptionally well, and gets fine performances from Chapman To and Isabella Leong. For current HK Cinema, this is still better than we probably deserve.
by Kozo:

It's not the Eighth Wonder of the World, but Isabella Leong can act. EEG naysayers may have to bite their tongues this time, because Leong, star of the heinous 2005 comedy Bug Me Not, shows here that she's more than just another empty Hong Kong popstar. The leggy ingenue is compelling and genuinely impressive in director Edmond Pang's Isabella, which surprisingly does not refer to his photogenic leading lady. Instead, the title Isabella refers to a dog owned by Cheung Bik-Yan (Isabella Leong), who's been locked out of her Macau flat with furry Isabella left alone inside. The need to get back inside her flat leads Yan to Shing (Chapman To), a corrupt cop who she sleeps with during a drunken one-night stand. After their tryst, Yan shadows Shing until she hits him up for the rent money. She also drops this whopper on him: she's his daughter. Yay, incest!

The backstory to this socially frowned-upon pairing: many moons ago, Shing loved and left Yan's mom (J.J. Jia), who gave birth to and raised Yan without Shing's knowledge. Yan's mom also recently passed away, leaving Yan without guidance or enough money to placate the obnoxious landlord (Jim Chim in another Edmond Pang-appointed cameo). Shing isn't too keen on having Yan hang around him at first, but eventually he gives in, helping her look for Isabella, as well as simply spending time with her. So begins an odd, and even touching father-daughter romance, punctuated less by actual events than by mood, minor shifts in emotion, and a glorious, romanticized look at Macau. Basically, we watch as Yan becomes a part of Shing's life, first as an annoyance, then as an accepted relative, and finally as a cherished daughter. There are some actual events and even surprises along the way, but most of Isabella can be summed up in mood. It starts, it progresses, and then it ends. Along the way, there's laughs, tears, and many glimpses of Isabella Leong's bare legs and Chapman To's bare torso. Despite that latter detail, this is a film worth seeing.

Edmond Pang has never been the most friendly of directors. His previous films have seemingly been more concerned with snarky intelligence than earnest emotions. That changes for Isabella. Instead of a film that plays with audience expectation and puts plot (or plot twists) above character, Isabella is seemingly all about the people. Pang (who also co-wrote the film) puts almost exclusive focus on his father-daughter couple, and wrings exceptional performances from his two actors. Chapman To has long since proven that he's more than an annoying sidekick, and Isabella gives him ample opportunity to display his range. Shing's growing maturity is felt not only in To's performance, but in the background plot involving police corruption in Macau. Shing is the fall guy for a corruption probe, and has plans on how to deal with his possible fall from grace. Yan is his inadvertent savior, and Isabella Leong gives her precocious charm and a lovable impish rebelliousness. The relationship that develops between the two is compelling in its slow, modest development and reliance on incidental rather than overt emotions.

Not that Edmond Pang is unseen in Isabella. On the contrary, the director puts his filmmaking fingerprints all over the film - though at first he seems to be aping Wong Kar-Wai in his use of moody images and evocative close-ups. All that changes a good five minutes into the film, when his clever sense of humor begins to appear. Sooner or later, other Pang signifiers show up, including showy star cameos (Anthony Wong and Jim Chim give standout loudmouth performances), absurd extraneous dialogue, and questionably relevant plot detail. Pang takes great pains to set Isabella during the waning days of Macau's colonial status, and includes numerous intertitles detailing police corruption prior to the 1999 handover from Portugal to China. He also serves up other juicy details, such as parallels between Yan and her dog Isabella, Shing and his daughter Yan, China and Macau, Portugal and Macau, and probably even Initial D co-stars Anthony Wong and Chapman To in some lost deleted scene. The fact that Pang even named his film Isabella should factor in somewhere too. Pang's sense of humor occasionally seems more self-serving than necessary to his films. After AV, suspecting Pang of loading his films just to manufacture meaning isn't completely out of the question.

Also somewhat manufactured is Pang's artful storytelling, which seems to telegraph its intentions with every beautiful shot or meticulously staged scene. Pang changes up his directorial style for Isabella, and he gets great results. Isabella works wonders with mood and performance, and Pang frames his subjects with effective filmmaking technique. But Pang's aims are frequently obvious; each scene seems programmed to accomplish certain goals, and Pang technique almost always favors mood over narrative surprise. There's never a sense in Isabella that you're discovering anything; instead, Pang shows it to you in as obviously artful a manner as he can muster. The result is that the film doesn't seem to be doing very much. It tells a story, and his characters experience a complete journey, but the emotions felt seem calculated in every single choice Pang makes. Isabella is artful and undeniably gorgeous, but it also feels very, very planned.

But hey, it works! Pang may go obvious arthouse-lite in his filmmaking choices, but the choices he makes always seem to be the right ones, plus he doesn't sacrifice his intelligence or wit to do it. Isabella is frequently funny and touching, and Pang gets smart, involving performances from his actors. Pang also gets the most out of his production; the mood he creates is an exceptionally seductive one. Macau is rendered as romanticized and otherworldly, the characters feel real and complete, and Peter Kam's evocative score provides pitch-perfect support. As a filmmaker, Edmond Pang is probably not yet fully mature, as his technique still betrays a certain showy obviousness. Still, Pang's storytelling is remarkably assured, plus he's smart enough to downplay any massive significance, settling instead for emotions and feelings that seem appropriate for his characters and their situations. Pang also has an uncanny knack for getting the best from his actors, be they Chapman To, Daniel Wu, Gillian Chung, Lawrence Chou, or - perhaps most notably - Isabella Leong. With Isabella, Leong impresses enough that calling her Hong Kong's most promising young female star is not a stretch at all - plus it almost makes us forget that she appeared in Bug Me Not. For that, we must give Edmond Pang our sincerest thanks. (Kozo 2006)



DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Media Asia
2-Disc Special Edition
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS ES
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
Audio Commentary, Trailers, TV Spots, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, etc.
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

image courtesy of Media Asia Copyright 2002-2015 Ross Chen