Isabella (2006)

Directed by: Edmond Pang
Written by: Edmond Pang, Derek Tsang, Jimmy Wan & Kearen Pang
Producers: Edmond Pang, Chapman To & Jin Zhong Qiang
Starring: Chapman To, Isabella Leong, Derek Tsang, J. J. Jia, Meme Tian, Jim Chim, Josie Ho, Shawn Yue & Anthony Wong

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Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2007:
Best Original Film Score (Peter Kam)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2007:
Best Actress (Isabella Leong)
Best Cinematography (Charlie Lam)
Best Art Direction (Man Lim-Chung)
Best Costume Design & Make-Up (Stephanie Wong)

Looking at basic plot synopsis of every film of his from You Shoot, I Shoot up to AV, Edmond Pang, Hong Kong's latest bright spot in the directing field, does seem to possess a rather naughty piece of mind. Always involving sex as a content or a topic, within those frameworks he's been able to weave in gravely serious concerns about Hong Kong's economy, adultery, the evil in both sexes and the self awareness of today's youth feeling less important than their kin of 10-20 years back. From "Not Brothers", the production company founded by himself and good friend Chapman To, Isabella comes to us in the same slightly devious way. However, it's once again a confirmation of how welcome Pang's directorial presence is, now in large scope format!

Claiming the English title was NOT designed around leading lady Isabella Leong (1*), the setting is Macau on the brink of the handover to China (2*). The naughty premise by Pang this time around concerns cop Ma (Chapman To) picking up yet another one night stand but the girl Cheung (Leong) afterwards claims to be his daughter...

A slightly tricky maze of a character drama but also a very subtle experience focusing on purification, Pang probably doesn't claim to be complete yet and Isabella certainly isn't. However Pang has again provided Hong Kong cinema with a spark in the genre spectrum many dare not or won't acknowledge, which is fine by me. Eyes are despite that even more opened now for the young talent, especially so internationally since the film took home the Silver Bear for Best Music (Peter Kam) at the Berlin International Film Festival.

A fragmented narrative in many ways, Pang opens the film with telling images of disorientation amongst the seedy and naturally run down locales of Macau, captured beautifully by Charlie Lam (Pang's DOP of choice since Beyond Our Ken). The whole dual character tale between Ma and Cheung depends on an aura of mystery and for that reason it also doesn't hand out clues willingly. Cheung you interpret as luring a potential victim into her net, being callus, devious and not at this point representing the purification that indeed the whole of Macau goes through before the handover (3*). There's hate in Cheung's eyes but signs of a fear of losing grip on those you attach your love to, including the titular dog. This flows well into the confrontation with Ma. A cop stuck in a rut willingly or unwillingly, having engaged in choices along the way that he punishes himself for via a lifestyle of drinking and one night stands. Getting hold of what apparently is his long lost daughter reveals what you expect from the plot outline, the awakening of a responsibility in the adult. The adult that also therefore conducted the act of incest. Naughty, naughty Pang.

But guess what, that isn't an issue nor should it be. Pang lets calm emotions and style rule and the purification theme travel a challenging path. Ma is one of those who crashes down in these final days of Portuguese ruling but also hopefully one of many that will treat the new light with respect and welcome it. Pang again has a knack for subtlety and gets striking performances from his main, untested cast, especially young Leong who is nothing but dead on in her very cryptic character emotions and journey. No performer does rely on or is allowed to rely on soap opera hysterics. Not even normally grating comedy presence Chapman To who is starting to transform into an actor of versatility but having said that, I'm sure some annoyance will be generated towards him when or IF he decides to do comedy again. You're not forgiven yet. Watch out for brief appearances by "bigger" stars such as Shawn Yue, Josie Ho and Anthony Wong, playing Ma's superintendent. Lucky for him (or not), he gets to eat during each of his scenes, an aspect that represents a modicum of quirky humour that resides in Pang's vision. During other moments, it's actually character building to go that route.

Isabella can feel cold and emotionless due to low-key choices and is certainly not up to the levels of Wilson Yip's masterpiece Juliet In Love in that regard. But needing to choke up is not an issue with Isabella I found out. Whatever structure you've had in your life and however you've confronted emotions, some of us just don't wear them on our sleeves. Having told myself that, the film is very valid in its approach of feeling slightly cold and unaffecting. It's internal and Pang isn't necessarily wrong to let it play out that way. It might make for more boring cinema but that's an individual viewer problem. Threats of pretentiousness he does avoid splendidly and together with Peter Kam's latin flavoured score, Isabella makes us yet again thankful to have Edmond Pang on the Hong Kong cinema scene. It doesn't require box-office figures to be regarded or to get work. Look at Wong Kar-Wai. Oops, there came some inevitable and lazy comparison but Pang isn't completely far off WKW with his now apparently chosen style of cinema. He's welcome to sport the same cinema coat again though in order to find some form of ultimate voice. Boy is he close...

The DVD:

Mega Star presents the film in an aspect ratio of 2.38:1 approximately, with anamorphic enhancement. A little dirt appears but throughout the transfer is sharp and detailed.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track is largely reserved except for moments in Peter Kam's score that opens up the front soundstage in a fine way. Dialogue is always intelligible. A Cantonese DTS 5.1 track as well as the Mandarin dub in Dolby Digital 5.1 is also included.

The English subtitles are free of errors and comprehensible. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available.

Released as 2 disc set (and in a limited edition featuring a script book and movie stills), Mega Star decided to go against Edmond Pang's regular wishes to include English subtitles on the extra features. Too big of a company and too much hassle to please the market outside of their geographical range apparently. A shame because the first disc is loaded up with 3 audio commentaries. For your information, track 1 pairs up actor/co-producer Chapman To and actress Isabella Leong. Co-writer/co-producer/director Edmond Pang along with composer Peter Kam discuss on track 2 while director of photography Charlie Lam and co-writers Derek Tsang, Jimmy Wan and Kearen Pang occupy the last one.

Moving on to disc 2, where again no English translation is included aside from on the theatrical trailer. If you need permanent Chinese subtitles for the Making of (14 minutes, 10 seconds), it's your lucky day however. Many movie clips, cast & crew interviews and brief flashes of behind the scenes work doesn't seem to make this program particularly interesting.

Deleted scene (4 minutes, 47 seconds) is actually a reel consisting of 3 deleted clips. The first focuses on Ma's guilt of having accepted little to none responsibility before, the other is a restaurant scene between our leads (a widely spread still from the film is from this scene) and finally there's more of Ma up in the lighthouse, singing. Hard to judge the content obviously if you're in need of a translation but the first clip is affecting in its simplicity. Berlin Tour (4 minutes, 19 seconds) details the cast & crew's experience at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival, in montage form. Red carpet treatment, the press conference and the celebration of composer Peter Kam's win gets covered. Nice to see the acknowledgements, Chapman To clearly enjoying himself and Isabella Leong is radiant when in the spotlight at these events.

(Edmond Pang interview, from the Making of)

Next is a Isabella Leong interview shot during production and lasting 13 minutes, 17 seconds. Hope it's good if you can understand it and the uncut nature of the session produces final moments where Leong can't hold back her tears. A Music Video for the track "O Gente da Minha Terra" performed by Portuguese singer Mariza is set to movie clips only but is atmospheric enough to merit a viewing.

The trailer and 2 TV spots follow, a Photo Gallery with 20 quality stills from the film, poster & promotion materials (10 stills promoting the film fairly well) and finally the section Cast And Filmmaker Profiles. Here written content in Chinese and English can be taken in, starting with an extensive plot outline in About The Film. At least it wasn't the blurb from the back dvd cover as per usual. About Macau provides the viewer with helpful history, past and present. John Chong also writes in the piece Executive Producer's Note briefly about the making of the film. Producer talk.

Edmond Pang gives us his requisite Director's Statement as well. As usual very mature and downbeat with his sentiments, he does share with us a promise about his future steps as a filmmaker that is assuring and welcome. Producer's Note contains Chapman To's views on the behind the scenes role. It's short, fluffy but very honest as To talks humbly about the finished product.

(from one of the deleted scenes)

About The Cast presents biographies and filmographies for Chapman To, Isabella Leong, Meme Tian, J. J. Jia and Derek Tsang. Very brief career outlines and not much learnt summarizes this section. Most of them are new actors though. About The Crew shines the spotlight on Edmond Pang, co-writers Derek Tsang, Jimmy Wan and Kearen Pang, director of photography Charlie Lam, costume designer Stephanie Wong, art director Man Lim-Chung, composer Peter Kam and editor Wenders Li. Pang gets the most detailed history as expected and the remainder merely basic info. Good to acknowledge such a large part of the crew though. Finishing off what is really the most information the second disc seems to have is About The Songs, with sufficient information about standout songs from Isabella: "O Gente da Minha Terra" by Mariza and "Dream Mate" performed by Anita Mui. The latter being a personal favourite of Pang's.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

(1) Leong made quite a slammed leading actress debut in Law Chi-Leung's equally slammed Bug Me Not! and ultimately she is of course not the Isabella character.

(2) To give you a little background, I'll let Wikipedia speak for me:

"Administered by Portugal until 1999, it was the oldest European colony in China, dating back to the 16th century. The administrative power over Macau was transferred to the People's Republic of China in 1999, and it is now one of two special administrative regions of the PRC, together with Hong Kong. Besides historical Chinese and Portuguese world-heritage relics, Macau's biggest attraction is its gambling industry and casinos. Though many forms of gambling are legal here, the most popular game is baccarat, which generates over two thirds of the gaming industry's gross receipts."

Taking over from here, Hong Kong movies have also used Macau's uniquely timeless architecture as historical backdrops and you can see its locations being put to use in Miracles, Hong Kong 1941 and In The Mood For Love.

(3) As detailed in the various title cards interspersed throughout, the intensity of arrests of corrupt police officers increased during this time.