Many people, mistakenly, compare Isabella to Wong Kar-wai's work. The opening twenty minutes indeed employ some montages and temporal displacement/recreation technique but even those are not Wong's particular hallmark. All that amounts to is a few sleigh-of-hand tricks played on the audience, creating a false impression that the hooker that policeman Shing (Chapman To) picks up and spends a night with in his crummy apartment is Yan (Isabella Leung), a young girl found sitting slurping instant noodle in the sofa when he wakes up in the morning. What actually happened is that Yan had only just sneaked into the apartment, after rubbing shoulder with the hooker who was leaving and was mistaken by Shing to be the hooker whose face he obviously never bothered to take a good look at. This little piece of detail is very important as Yan later drops a bombshell that she is actually a daughter Shing never knew he had. She even plays with him for a little while in allowing him to believe that she was the hooker he had taken to bed last night.
After the somewhat playful opening, the movie becomes quite mainstream, although remaining stylistic. This story of Shing and Yan is essentially character-driven. The bare necessity of events needed is that as her mother died recently of cancer, she was kicked out of her apartment and lost her dog called Isabella. As Yan moves into Shing's apartment and he helps her to look for the dog, we see how the two interact, develop first a rapport, and then deeper feelings. Some critics make a lot out of the tantalising hint of a romantic relationship, but they have been mislead. Yan is yearning is for a father who has deserted her, not a lover. Director Pang has spared no pain in hammering that point home, again and again. But then, as playful a director as he is (you only have to watch his "You shoot, I shoot" to find out), he has more sleigh-of-hand tricks to play on the audience. It turns out that Shing had once before encountered Yan in a night spot and had suggested a one-night fling (which he obviously cannot remember). "You have eyes that look like my first love," he whispered. She intimated later that she almost ended up going home with him (but she didn't) as she was longing to see how her father's home was like. The whole thing is brought home in one touching scene when Yan, in tears, asks Shing not to abandoned her AGAIN.
These are two people who have stumbled across the joy and comfort of having family. A stranger to domestic bliss since adulthood, Shing's interest in his newly found daughter is in things like cooking a meal for her, and not sleeping with her. Yan, on the other hand, has just lost the comfort and security of a family, albeit a single-parent one. In addition, having a father is a totally new experience to her. This is the basis of their relationship. And yet, as Director Pang may have playfully and subtly suggested, may there not be a dubious hint of romantic feeling between the two, particularly towards the end of the movie? Had Shing not been Yan's father, could something develop despite the age discrepancy? Then, don't forget the twist at the end. Here lies the fascination of the movie.
Little wonder that Isabella Leung was the darling of the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. Ever beguiling, she can do the innocent lass and the mean girl with equal ease. Uninhibited by her youthfulness, she can let her hair down when required, as in the "drunk" scene. In the end, however, it's the lost little girl yearning for a home, as well as a well-balanced mix of innocence and maturity, that wins the hearts of the audience.
Anybody who has seen Chapman To play a teenager in "Initial D" must have been converted to believing that ANYTHING can happen in casting a movie here. In "Isabella", To finally lands a role that takes him out of the doldrums of the funny guy and gives him something to chew on. I can't honestly say that he shines. His expressions have a tendency to be wooden and there's a thin line between being that and being reflective. Still, it's a credible performance and a step in the right direction.
Anyone familiar with Hong Kong movies knows how movie makers here are fond of putting in a few cameo roles. In "Isabella", there are Josie Ho, Shawn Yue and the ever show-stealing Anthony Wong (who just won Best Supporting in the "HK Oscar" for his portrayal of a Japanese father in "Initial D"). Then there's Derek Tsang Kwok-cheung, top entertainment celebrity Eric Tsang's son, with a pretty good role as Yan's loyal, selfless young admirer.
I have talked about the music. Not to be forgotten however is the camera has captured the charm of Portuguese ruled Macau during the days just before its return to China in 1999. All told, I have to resort to an often used, but quite apt, simple and short description to summarise "Isabella" a gem.