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Isabella
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by Jay Seaver

"Two notable Isabellas."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: It's easy to say what "Isabella" is about - a middle-aged man coming to terms with the daughter he never knew he had - although it's a little more difficult to nail down the specific plot, especially while it's playing. After a while it doesn't quite matter, though, since we're getting very nice work from Chapman To and Isabella Leong.

The film takes place against the background of Macau just before its handover to mainland China; as the occasional on-screen text informs us, the local police department has been rocked by a corruption scandal and is trying to put its house in order before the new bureaucracy does it for them. Shing (Chapman To) doesn't look like a particularly honest cop, so he's got enough on his plate when one of the teenage girls he has been hitting on tells him that he is her father, and needs his help to get into her apartment to rescue her dog. Yan (Isabella Leong) doesn't expect Shing to actually act like a father, but the orphaned girl inspires something in him beyond the usual apathy and scuzziness.

The title of the film refers to the name of Yan's dog, but one can be easily forgiven for believing the film is named after its lead actress. Isabella Leong first gained fame in Hong Kong as a pop singer, though she has been doing a bunch of films over the past two years, and she certainly seems to have an aptitude for it. Her Yan probably thinks that she's old for her years, but while she's certainly had to deal with more troubles than a girl her age should, she's always wearing her young heart on her sleeve. Yan tries to mask it, by being deliberately pushy when she first meets Shing or misrepresenting her relationship to Sing to a boy at school with a crush on her, but Ms. Leong never loses sight of how Yan is still a kid who needs a parent, rather than someone who grew up fast.

Chapman To has been hanging around Hong Kong cinema as a supporting actor for a while, and to look at him as Shing, he doesn't quite scream "leading man" right away. When we're first introduced to Shing, we don't think much of him; he's short, unkempt, and vaguely corrupt. The only thing he seems to use his badge for is to get in bed with teenage girls. It's not that he's bad or nasty; we just get the feeling that he's been coasting along, going on the take because the rest of the department is, failing to change or grow because he's got no reason to. When Yan drags Shing to the apartment that she's been evicted from, he's mostly irritated at going out of his way to do something, but gets upset when he finds out Yan's landlord has gotten rid of her dog - that's just unnecessary; why be spiteful like that? Over the course of the film, though, we get to see him slowly and smoothly become someone who at least understands adult responsibility.

There's not a whole lot more to the movie than that. Shing grows up because he finds that acting like a father can make him happy in ways that simple hedonism doesn't; Yan re-learns how to be a child and will possibly be a better, less cynical adult because of it. It's a pleasuree to watch To and Leong work together; there's a story, sure, but even if there weren't, just watching their evolving relationship is worth the price of admission. Filmmaker Pang Ho-Cheung uses the impending handover of Macau as a quiet metaphor: Things are imperfect there, and oftentimes pretty bad, but the uncertainty may be the worst thing. Pang's Macau feels a little like Wong Kar-wai's Shanghai, even if it is modern and grimy rather than stylish and glowing from fresh rain: It's home, a comforting place despite the personal tumult.

Yan's dog Isabella inspires the title by illustrating the central theme, that sometimes there's nothing more important than finding someone who can and will look after you, even if it's not part of the original or usual plan. Yan and Isabella parallel Shing and Yan, as in both cases someone must make a mature (and difficult) decision about what's best for someone he or she has come to care about versus what would make him or her happiest. Pang keeps the details of Shing's circumstances to a minimum, mostly telling the story of the corruption case and how it might affect him through blocks of text that appear on-screen.

By the time it's over, there is in fact a story there, but it's easy to miss, especially if you're looking for events, rather than just watching how To and Leong play off each other and how it changes as the film goes on.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=14594&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/10/07 03:03:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2007 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Ho-Cheung Pang

Written by
  Kearen Pang
  Derek Tsang
  Jimmy Wan

Cast
  Chapman To
  Isabella Leong
  J.J. Jia
  Derek Tsang
  Meme Tian



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