Isabella was a pleasant surprise of a film for me. Perhaps it was due to my expectations. I didn’t expect to like it, and I admit that’s because the minute I find out a film is about an older guy and a beautiful young girl, I’m a bit bored; I’m in the wrong demographic to see the appeal. So no, I didn’t really expect to like it. But Isabella surprised me because it wasn’t really what I expected after all. It was instead a very touching, subtle drama with a heart of a different nature. Understated and indirect with its emotions, it seemed to deliberately avoid the arguably tacky pitfalls its premise could have led it into and by so doing (or not, in this case), it managed to highlight some surprisingly mature and real emotional issues.
And that is a great part of the film’s overall allure — that it doesn’t try too hard and therefore comes across as natural rather than contrived. The relationship between Shing and Yan has genuine warmth as well as complexity. Yan, played by Isabella Leong in a sparkling, promising and quite strong performance, moves in with Chapman To’s slightly loathsome and pathetic Shing, mostly without his say so, after her mother dies. Shing of course doesn’t know what to do with her, or at least he knows what he would have done with her, were she not his daughter, but it would be inaccurate to say that the film intentionally flirts with that taboo line, despite numerous scenes that could have been discomforting to watch had they been treated differently. The sensitive and realistic approach to the emotional focus of the content meant that it never really put a foot wrong. Yan and Shing are virtual strangers, their relationship confirmed only by stories they would not have otherwise shared. Yan’s neediness and independence, her vulnerability and strength as exemplified in her search for her missing dog, is the perfect foil for Shing’s apathetic, irresponsible and self-consuming existence.
It’s a coming of age film where, unexpectedly, the one coming of age is not the child. Shing becomes more and more someone who realises that being a father is no easier and no different from being a man. Yan’s presence in his life is a catalyst, and in this odd role-reversal, strangely Yan’s own defining moment is something she reaches alone and without his guidance. The film is stunning to look at, reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai/Christopher Doyle collaborations in both colour and composition, but more accessible and slightly less daring. Pang’s ability to draw subtle, strong performances from his cast is admirable and Peter Kam’s gorgeous soundtrack the perfect accompaniment to the Macanese backdrop of the film.
Isabella isn’t life-changing stuff, at least not for the audience, but it is an unexpected pleasure that, once seen, won’t be regretted.