Isabella


I had previously seen “Isabella” on DVD and thought it enjoyable but a bit derivative. On this second viewing though it picked up some true resonance for me and left me feeling rather wistful and rueful by the end. In my review of Edmond Pang’s last film, “AV”, I stated that as entertaining as his films could be it felt to me as though he was sliding by on his wit and cleverness and that I thought he needed to aim for something with more depth. I assume he read my review and this is his answer. That was sarcasm by the way. In “Isabella” Pang for the most part plays it straight without indulging in parody or slight of hand and gives the audience a melancholy tinged look at a mildly corrupt and empty man coming to terms with what he has become over time. It works nicely because of the natural slow rhythm of the narrative and two finely honed performances.

The one obvious criticism that can be aimed at this work is that it often seems overwhelmingly influenced by the style of Wong Kar-wai. These influences appear everywhere from the musical choices, the lighting, the camera angles, the mood and the pacing. Wong Kar-wai casts a giant creative shadow over Hong Kong and his enormous international stature must make it difficult for any young director to escape his influence – especially for those that are attempting to make “serious” artistic films. It feels that when Pang decided to move in this direction with a more personal story he turned to Wong as an inspiration – whether intended or not. Even with this aura wafting through the film though, it still maintains enough of its own identity with a wry sense of humor, affection for its protagonists and its gentle humanity.

Pang replaces Wong’s 1960’s Hong Kong with the old sections of Macau and in similar fashion he uses this backdrop to create an intimate mood of melancholy, nostalgia and decay. Filming on its winding narrow cobblestone streets and within decrepit paint peeling apartments, Pang infuses his sets with various shades of omnipresent greens and natural light. One night Shing comes face to face with his past when a young girl, Bik-yan, follows him into a bar and hits him over the head with a bottle. Thinking that he had slept with and paid for her the previous night, Shing attempts to silence the underage girl but is truly taken aback when she declares that she is his daughter from a past relationship and that her mother has recently died. The guilt he still feels for having long ago abandoned his girlfriend at the abortion clinic as a teenager comes to the surface and he takes Bik-yan into his apartment and his life. He is a cop and as he admits to her not a completely honest one and he may have to soon take a fall. With the Handover to China looming it is perhaps an opportunity for him (and Macau) to start over again. As their relationship and affection for one another grows he starts to examine his life.

With only a skeleton of a plot, this slowly paced and gently told story nearly becomes a mood piece set to music, colors and shadows. Pang injects moments of humor into the film such as Bik-yan putting off all Shing's’s girlfriends with lies and tough talk or him teaching her the proper way to hit someone with a bottle (you need follow through). Both actors – the usually comic Chapman To and the fresh faced and long- legged Isabella Leung – give fine understated performances - something that Pang seems very able to elicit from his actors. Though I believe the film didn’t do nearly as well at the box office as some of his previous work – in particular “Men Suddenly in Black” - I hope Pang continues to push in this direction and that he will eventually establish his own identity.

Rating: 7.0

Viewed at the World Film Festival of Bangkok