Director of last year’s funny sex-comedy AV, Hong Kong director Pang Ho Cheung again shows his diversity and manages to find an unusual perspective on standard genre material in his latest film Isabella, the official Hong Kong entry at the 56th Berlin Film Festival in 2006. Using the setting of Macau in 1999, the director sets the story of a corrupt police officer and his reluctant relationship with a young schoolgirl who claims to be his daughter alongside the government’s attempt to bring down the organised crime that is rife in the port. If the two elements of the plot don’t always blend easily, they are at least mirrored in the unusually lush cinematography and sweeping music score.
Inspector Ma Chen-shing (Chapman To), or Shing as he is known, is a Macau policeman whose methods are a bit unorthodox - usually involving beer bottles and criminal’s heads – but he gets results. His manner with women seems to be similarly efficacious – screw them, pay them and get rid of them. However he has trouble with one girl who won’t just disappear the next morning. Not only does she follow him around all the next day, but she also seems to have picked up something from his interrogation methods. The girl is Yan (Isabella Leung) and she says that she is his daughter, the product of a brief liaison Shing had many years ago – a child he thought, in his usual offhand manner, had been disposed of before birth. Her mother has recently died, and she is in trouble, needing a large sum of money – so true to form, Shing pays her the money she needs to make her disappear again. Things however are not that simple.
The money is needed to pay her landlord and get back the dog he is keeping locked in her room until she pays her back rent. Shing therefore has to use his influence, or at least his heavy-hand techniques to get the dog, who is called Isabella, back for her. Isabella was Yan’s mother’s name, and in making such an effort on her behalf, Shing is of course showing a weakening in his position. Yes, it’s as blatant and as predictable as it sounds. Yan and her mother are thus identified with the position of a dog that has been thrown out on the street, pricking Shing’s conscience about his behaviour. Without a place to stay, Yan moves in with Shing and they have to find a way of getting on together – something that is not easy considering Yan is a teenage schoolgirl and Shing is a lecher who has a steady flow of women visiting the house. Inevitably however and despite their differences a bond develops between the guy who has suddenly discovered he is a father and the daughter he never wanted. Yan tries to subtly get rid of his women, but takes up drinking and gambling and practices her bottle swinging action. Real family bonding stuff – it will surely bring a tear to your eye.
In between, title screens mark out the passing of time with dates and facts about an increasingly volatile situation with the Triads as the Portuguese colony of Macau is about to be handed over at the turn of the millennium to China. All the trouble happens off screen, but it becomes evident that the authorities are trying to clean the place up and Shing’s background means that he can be implicated in some dubious dealings. Of course with Yan now staying with him, the daughter he has just discovered could also be at risk.
This is a fairly predictable storyline, and it was already fairly creaky when Luc Besson trotted out a similar situation in Léon - a film I absolutely despise for its lazy characterisation, false manipulation, genre clichés and rather dubious sexual undertones. This doesn’t make me at all sympathetic when seeing it done third-hand, the surrogate father-figure even sleeping with his teenage schoolgirl “daughter” in this case. More agonising however is watching Yan even do a little singing piece while Shing looks on bemused. It all feels utterly fake and contrived and in many ways - not least of which is the title of the film - the whole thing feels like little more than a vehicle for Cantonese pop-star Isabella Leung. John Woo in his Hong Kong movies heyday could make much more of such a clichéd genre scenario, imbuing it with style and the charisma of his actors. There is no such compensation here, the whole thing filmed in the framing, style and colouring of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography for Wong Kar-wai, without it being as imaginative, meaningful or appropriate. Rather than see a lonely lover standing at the end of an immaculately lit alleyway, you are more likely to see someone getting a bottle smashed over their head – a Carlsberg bottle at that, such is the level of product placement. The music score is also reminiscent of Wong’s scores, and like the cinematography is a little overegged, failing to match the tone of the film, using Portuguese influenced plucking guitar strings, plaintive violins and tinkling piano which sits uneasily with these harder-edged characters.
To compensate however, we have a lovely cameo from Anthony Wong as Shing’s boss, who pops up now and again, mumbling and arguing semi-coherently with himself, to warn Shing of the deteriorating situation as he extols the qualities of his food. The cinematography may be unoriginal and inappropriate to the tone of the film, but Macau is still beautifully photographed throughout in beautiful washes of a bold gold and green colour scheme. Also to the film’s credit, it does tend to slip away from the predictable direction it seems to be going in and even disregards the Chekhov dictum about a gun being introduced in the first act – but you could also see this as just further evidence of the film just running out of steam and losing direction.
Isabella is released in Hong Kong by Media Asia/Mega Star as a 2-disc set. The DVD is not region encoded and is in NTSC format.
One of the better Hong Kong DVD companies, or at least one that has consistently improved the quality of its releases, Media Asia/Mega Star transfer and presentation of Isabella is impressive. With beautiful cinematography and striking use of colour, with frequent use of darkened interiors, a sympathetic transfer is required here and that is what we get. The image is not overly sharp or bright, but the level of softness seems right and there is good detail and fine gradation in the rich colours. Shadow detail is not quite perfect, but blacks are deep and solid. There are very few marks on the print and those that do crop up from time to time are barely perceptible. Stability is good, with only an occasional judder or lack of smoothness in movements. These minor issues are far too rare to have any significant impact on the quality of the image.
A DTS track has a slight edge over the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, with superb clarity, a pleasant tone and effective use of surrounds. Occasionally dialogue sounds a little bit harsh, with background hiss or a low level of high-pitched whistle. This would seem to be inherent in the source recording of the dialogue, and not something that can be easily dampened. In fact, the higher quality DTS sound mix only makes it more pronounced. It is not frequent or loud enough however to be a serious problem.
English subtitles are provided and are optional in a white font. The grammar and spelling are correct almost throughout. I only noticed one error in the use of “passed” instead of “past” - as in “he walked passed” – but elsewhere this is a good translation.
Mega Star’s 2-disc edition of Isabella is packed with extra features, but none of them are subtitled in English. There are no less than 3 commentary tracks on Disc 1. It seems excessive and I can’t imagine what they all find to talk about in a film like this. Disc 2 contains a standard EPK Making Of (14:09), made up principally of clips from the film, with the usual interview snippets and behind-the-scenes footage, with emphasis on fooling around on the set. There are three Deleted Scenes (4:45), footage of the film’s presentation at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival in Berlin Tour (4:18), where the film won an award for Best Score. There’s an extended version of the Isabella Leung Interview (13:15) used in the Making Of, the actress getting quite emotional at the end. The Music Video makes use of the ballad ‘Ó Gente da Minha Terra’ sung by Mariza, but again I fail to see any compatibility between music and imagery. It’s used again in the Trailer (2:43), which has dual Chinese and English subtitles. There are also 15-second and a 30-second TV Spots, a Photo Gallery of twenty gorgeous stills, ten images of Poster & Promotion Materials, which plainly imitate the poster campaign for ‘In The Mood For Love. The bilingual English and Chinese Cast & Filmmaker Profiles includes a synopsis that explains much of what the film fails to convey about Shing’s status (I hadn’t realised he was suspended for example), as well as information about Macau, statements from the director and producer, cast and crew details and information about the Portuguese fado music used in the film. The text information in this section is all very useful.
It’s possible that viewers more favourably inclined towards Luc Besson’s Léon than myself might find something more appealing in the storyline of Isabella, particularly as it is attractively photographed in a Wong Kar-wai/Christopher Doyle style to evoke a particular mood. Personally, I found it all too predictable and too long, the cinematography and score inappropriate for the subject matter, failing to let me really engage with the characters. Mega Star’s 2-disc edition is however a good way to view the film with an impressive transfer. Without English subtitles however, the abundance of extra features are of limited value.