Ho-Cheung Pang (Love In A Puff, Exodus) is definitely one of the most interesting directors working in the Hong Kong movie industry today. With two new films coming up, it felt like a good time to revisit my favorite Pang film, his somewhat atypical and surprisingly arthouse-inspired Isabella [Yi Sa Bui Lai]. It's been five years already when I watched it for the first time, but it still stands strong as one of Hong Kong's best films to date.
Ho-Cheung Pang is probably the director that got me interested in Hong Kong cinema in the first place. Before I discovered his films the HK industry felt like a stale collection of genre films and derivatives. Even though I've come to appreciate their appeal over the years, I was looking for something different back then. Films like You Shoot, I Shoot or Man Suddenly In Black may not be masterpiece material, but at least they betrayed a director with a personal vision. And Pang delivered, with films that float between commercial and arthouse cinema, maintaining a refreshingly young and hip atmosphere without losing any of their cinematic qualities.
The films he directed prior to Isabella were all comedies though, so when Pang announced his Macau-based drama I was quite curious to see what he would and could do with the genre. It turns out he delivered a film that could match the best of Wong Kar-Wai while injecting a more contemporary feel. The film starts when Cheung goes looking for her long-lost father. She meets up with him but instead of introducing herself she seduces him and they end up in bed together. A rather weird beginning, but it somehow suits the characters.
After some jumping back and front Cheung breaks to news to Ching (her father) and she moves in with him. Ching isn't ready to give up his current life-style though, so Cheung is constantly confronted with the women Ching brings back home. Even though their relationship is quite awkward at first, the two of them slowly start to appreciate each other's company. What Cheung doesn't know is that Ching is readied to become the fall-guy for a big police scandal, forcing him to either flee or abandon Cheung once more.
Isabella is a damn impressive film to look at. Green and red are the dominant colors (quite typical for HK/Chinese dramas) throughout the entire film, the night scenes are bathed in sexy sepia tints. The camera work is great, mixing controlled camera swoops with more agile and quirky camera work. Some very impressive angles and strong framing help the film to become even more striking. Cinematographer Charlie Lam makes a great claim to match the work of Christopher Doyle without outright copying Doyle's style.
The soundtrack too is not unlike Wong Kar Wai's choice in music, though in Isabella's case the setting of Macau makes for a more obvious link between the music and the film itself. Portugal-themed music helps to establish a very unique atmosphere and it even won the film a Silver Bear in Berlin. The rest of the soundtrack consist of quality drama-supporting tracks, but more traditional in their execution. Ho-Cheung Pang uses the music to maximum effect though, resulting in a very tight mix of audio and visuals.
Isabella is probably Isabella Leong's (Mon Seung) break-through movie and it's not difficult to see why. She carries the film with deceptive ease and even though her character isn't the most likable person you can imagine, it's still easy to feel for her situation. Chapman To proves a very worthy opponent and between the both of them there is enough dramatic tension and weight to make for a challenging relationship. Anthony Wong makes a small but noteworthy appearance too, it seems he's even prominent in movies where he can't claim a substantial role, just more proof that the man has a good nose for quality cinema.
The beginning of the film may be a little awkward (what with the incest and all), but as the film goes on a surprisingly sensitive story emerges. With two characters who are far from lovable, Pang builds a context where we can actually feel for these people, despite all their flaws. The ending is strong and poignant and serves as the perfect conclusion for Isabella.
With Isabella Ho-Cheung Pang combines strong drama with a superb sense of aesthetics. It's easily his most accomplished film to date where everything feels just right. Only the start of the film may be a bit unsettling, but just leave everything to Pang and you'll see that halfway through you're settled enough to let the drama and the strong atmosphere do their work. If you haven't discovered Ho-Cheung Pang yet, this is the film where you should start.