Isabella (2006)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-03-28
“Isabella” seems to be an attempt by Edmund Pang to make a film that would do well on the festival circuit and get good art house play. Its characters are full of secrets and almost always lie to and about each other. Most of the action takes place off screen—it is set just before and after the handover of Macau to the PRC—and is summarized by title cards that also serve to help delineate the structure of the movie. Very little actually happens on screen and even that occurs very slowly. It is lovely to watch and listen to—cinematographer Lam Chi-Kin used a palette limited almost entirely to deep greens, grays and browns with the occasional flash of red and composer Peter Kam Pau-Tat provided a very romantic piano and violin based score.

Inspector Ma Jan Shing (Chapman To Man-Tat) and Cheung Bik Yan Isabella Leung Lok-Sze) are not only the main characters they are essentially the only characters other than Yan’s dog. Everyone else in the movie comes and goes at various points but no one has any real effect on things. None of the other characters are interesting in themselves; they are there only to provide information about Shing and Yan, essentially to allow them to tell more lies to each other. Yan confronts a number of Shing’s girlfriends, one night stands and pick-ups, coming up with a story for each of them that will make them go away. Shing knows a surprising secret (actually a secret within a secret) that he only reveals (to the audience but not to Yan) very late in the game.

Chapman To is so taciturn that is very lack of expression becomes the way he communicates. After a while he seems somnolent, as if he dozed off in the middle of a scene and Pang kept the camera rolling. Dozing off would not be the worst reaction to much of “Isabella”; many of the scenes are too long, the glances too lingering, the pauses too full of meaning. A lot of the shots are much too long—it looks like Pang forget to say “cut” and fell in love with the images he was creating. Some shots go on for so long that one can easily imagine the storyboards and the blocking instructions on the shooting script. He makes Macau look lovely, an elegantly decayed throwback to an imperial past and he does a wonderful job of lighting and framing his actors but ultimately the lack of pace in “Isabella” is an exercise in self-indulgence.

Slow is not bad in itself. Long scenes, long takes and long shots aren’t flaws as such but it takes a very skilled director to use them as much as Pang does here. Eric Rohmer has made riveting films that are mainly characters sitting around an apartment or beach house talking with each other but they are vital, interesting characters who through the course of the film reveal their interior lives. His “Six Moral Tales” are masterpieces of temptations resisted and accepted—and talked about in elegant and seductive ways. Wim Wenders has made enthralling movies which seem to consist of ordinary people talking about ordinary activities. Mentioning Ingmar Bergman would be raising the bar much too high so I won’t.

“Isabella” is gorgeous but I wouldn’t want to sit through it in a movie theater where one is more or less captive and without access to a fast forward button.

Six points for the audacious effort, the look of Macau, the acting and Pang’s ability to bring out the best in actors. They must trust him immensely.
Reviewer Score: 6