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Hong Kong 2006


Pang Ho-Cheung

Chapman To
Isabella Leong
Anthony Wong
Derek Tsang
Shawn Yue
Steven Cheung
Josie Ho
J.J. Jia
Wan Yeung Ming

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Story: It is the summer of 1999 - Macau is to be returned to China. Since statesmen want to make a good impression when the hand over takes place, they lead a campaign against the dominating corruption in the country. Shing (Chapman To) is one of the many policemen who is being investigated. Temporarily suspended, he lives from one day to the next in a run-down apartment and finds pleasure in having a different prostitute every day. However, one morning he wakes up and finds the girl Yan (Isabella Leong) in his apartment. She tells him that she is actually his daughter, whom he didn't even know he had!
Yan enters Shing's life, because her mother died of lung cancer. She can't pay her rent anymore and therefore has been kicked out of her flat. Moreover, she is desperately looking for her dog Isabella. Shing helps out Yan and takes care of her from that day on. The two get closer, and soon a father-daugher relationship unfolds. Shing and Yan spend some nice weeks together, whereas Shing is always reminded of his first girlfriend, Yan's mother, by his daughter's face. Still, Shing knows that he most likely has to face a prison sentence. Should he flee the country with his daughter? And more importantly, did he really spend the night with Yan?

Review: "Isabella" is a character-driven drama about love in its many forms. It's also about loss and regret. The movie attracted international attention when it won the Silver Bear Award for best film score at the Berlin Filmfestspiele in 2006. Righly so, as Peter Kam ("Perhaps Love") created an engaging soundtrack, that captures the film's mood perfectly. During many scenes the filmmakers placed more value on the importance of the music than it is the case with most movies.
Apart from the musical aspect, "Isabella" is also a little gem among the few "tranquil Hong Kong dramas" there are. Director Pang Ho-Cheung already made a good name for himself with his movies "Men Suddenly in Black" or "Beyond our Ken". This time he shows even more finesse and approaches the theme of his film in a lot more serious way. The end product is a drama the kind we haven't seen it for a long time from the former british crown colony.

Pang likes to play tricks on the viewer and so even the first minutes are full of some nice twists and revelations. Shing might have slept with his daughter, but why didn't she hinder him, if she already knew that he is her father? We get a lot of answers, but only very late into the movie, or even a little bit earlier, but then without us noticing them at first. There are several time shifts and flashbacks, and so certain scenes, like Shing's cheap pick-up line at the beginning, only make sense retrospectively and even prove to be important for the story. Which is something you really have to give the director credit for. Normally, filmmakers go the easy way when it comes to dramas and they only focus on the character development, whereas the story itself remains in a rather minimalistic framework. But that's not the case here, because even at the end we still get a resolution that completely catches us off-guard. Therefore, the plot is always thrilling and engaging.

What's really eye-catching, however, is the great cinematography by Charlie Lam, who already did a good job in "Jiang Hu". Here, he goes some steps further and manages the impossible to imbue rotten walls and run-down rooms with a glamorous touch the way only a real artist can. The shots of Macau's streets also show the poverty of the country, but there is also always a certain kind of gleaming, which accentuates the undeniable beauty of this town. A warm light, winding roads and streets that almost beg you to just take a peaceful walk, as well as architecture influenced by the portuguese, all add to some really wonderful outdoor shots. Director Pang knows exactly how to implement these pictures into his movie and so he creates nearly a nostalgic feeling as if recalling good old memories. It's no surprise that Pang is oftentimes compared to Wong Kar-Wai, because he works on the same level of quality without having to give up his own style. Pang demonstrates that he is one of the best in the business, and we hopefully will see more from him in the future.

A drama that strongly relies on its characters won't work out because of fast cuts or flashy tricks, of course. Thus, the pictures are all composed very carefully and with a lot of heart. If dramas like this one aren't your cup of tea, then you will find the pacing too slow at times, yet when you compare it to other movies of this kind, "Isabella" isn't as sedately at all, actually.
It's also refreshing that despite all the credibility and profoundness of what's happening on screen, the film doesn't lack some humorous scenes. However, these scenes take up a subordinate role to the overall style of the film, so that they can entertain without distracting of what's really important.

The performances of the actors are surprisingly great. Chapman To, who has his first leading role here, is known for portraying funny supporting roles. Therefore it's even more amazing, that he bestows an impressive credibility and depth on Shing. His facial acting may be a bit wooden at times, but this is something you can easily oversee, since his portrayal of a corrupt cop, who is forced to somehow get along with his newly found daughter and is undergoing a change to a better man thanks to his relationship with her, is without any flaws otherwise.
The most outstanding performance and also a surprising one at that is Isabella Leong's. You might have thought that this is just yet another one of those good-looking Canto-popstars. But Leong proves to have at least as much talent when it comes to acting as Fiona Sit, if not a whole lot more. It seems as if many HK-Stars don't get the chance to show what they are really made of. Pang, however, constructs his whole movie around the performances of its leads, and he doesn't have a reason to be disappointed by the actors' efforts. Leong's character is multi-layered, and she masters with ease to merge her childish brashness, anger and griefing with her more mature side to one credible personality.
Moreover, the chemistry between Leong and To is great at any time and makes for a good groundwork to build the rest of this extraordinary relationship drama on.

The supporting cast also consists of some familiar faces. We have Shawn Yue in a little cameo, Derek Tsang in a rather disappointing and flat portrayal of Yan's caring friend, and Anthony Wong with some amazing screen presence as Shing's superior with a weakness for good food. Wong once again proves that he is a master when it comes to stealing his colleagues' show, and this even though he merely is prattling pointless stuff with a full mouth most of the time.
Every now and then there are some text messages inserted into the movie, that just inform us that some corrupt policemen have been apprehended. Still, this is a nice trick as we get the feeling that the noose around Shing's neck is slowly tightening on him. Luckily, Shing is a very humane and likeable character, meaning that despite of some of his bad character trade marks we still are interested in his fate.

In the end, the characters grow as individuals because of their relationship to one another. They actually become better persons. The viewer gladly accompanies them on their journey, as Pang's film is not just dreary and dramatic, but also has a certain warmth and faith to it that everything will get better, eventually. The director intentionally leaves the question unanswered if the relationship between the main protagonists is a normal father-daughter relationship or in fact a love relationship. Actually, you can watch this movie from two different angles, which is also what some of the twists ask you to do. That's one of the many reasons why "Isabella" is a movie that can stick with you for a long time and can be really touching.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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