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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Isabella [Blu-ray]

(aka "Yi sa bui lai")

(Pang Ho-Cheung, 2006)




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Review by Leonard Norwitz



Theatrical: Not Brothers

Blu-ray: MegaStar (Hong Kong)



Region: FREE! (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Runtime: 1:49:21.000

Disc Size: 24,150,507,838 bytes

Feature Size: 21,026,260,992 bytes

Video Bitrate: 15.49 Mbps

Chapters: 20

Case: Standard Blu-ray case

Release date: June 9th, 2009



Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Resolution: 1080p / 24 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video




Dolby TrueHD Audio Chinese 5125 kbps 7.1 / 96 kHz / 5125 kbps / 16-bit (AC3 Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps)
Dolby Digital Audio Chinese 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Chinese 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Chinese 224 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 224 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Chinese 224 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 224 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Chinese 224 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 224 kbps



English, Chinese (traditional and simplified), none



• Audio Commentary by Actor & Producer Chapman To & Isabella Leong

• Audio Commentary by Director Pang Ho-Cheung and Composer Peter Kam

• Audio Commentary by Cinematographer Charlie Lam & Screenwriters Derek Tsang, Jimmy Wan & Kearen Pang

• Making of – in SD (14:10)

• Interview with Isabella Leong – in SD (13:17)

• Deleted Scene – in SD (4:47)

• Trailer – in HD



The Film: 8
Time shifting, so much a part of Isabella's architecture, is announced subtly by the first line, "Your eyes remind me of my first girlfriend." It is spoken by Shing (an unlikely Chapman To), to a teenage girl (teenage pop singer turned actress, Isabella Leong), evidently as a pick-up. This single line of dialogue contains all the motivic germs for the story that unfolds, prior to and following this moment. At this point, the camera frames both their faces tightly and we do not know anything about their identities or relationship to one another.

In a context of increasing corruption of Macau police, it is a curious coincidence that Shing is himself a detective and Yan, his daughter, a fact, we learn later. that at this point is known only to her. In the very next shot we see Yan distantly framed, dressed in a typical schoolgirl's outfit, followed by a shot of Shing in close-up, his forehead bandaged, leaning mindlessly against a slot machine. Do these second and third shots occur in time before or after the first shot, or are they meant to be merely a metaphor of a change in their relationship to come? Perhaps all of the above.

Isabella is a film that demands its audience pay attention, not that we are likely to understand the implications or the place in the time line of every shot or line of dialogue during its first act. Set in Macau in 1999 during the transition from Portuguese to Chinese rule, Shing is a fairly miserable person, a cop bored with his life consisting largely of drinking to drunkenness and bedding any girl who says yes. As Yan explains to him so eloquently when asked how she could let him "screw" her knowing he was her father: "You sleep with every girl you meet, sooner or later you would get around to your daughter."

Shing, we might divine from the opening line, is consumed by the memory of his first love, a girl he left pregnant. Yan hasn't much going for her either. Her mother had only just died a few months earlier of cancer, and while she attends school and receives the attention of boys, Yan is lonely and misses her mother desperately. She is four months behind in her rent and her landlord has locked her out of her flat, but not before letting out her dog, Isabella, as soon as her back was turned. Though kept largely I the background, the search for Isabella is a significant piece of what follows.

The story, as you might expect, is about how such misfits come to find something of a relationship following their remarkably atypical start – incest being a subject that is not far from Yan's and Shing's minds, and sometimes even closer to Yan's heart. Isabella, whose photography is credited to Charlie Lam (Cheut ai kup gei, One Last Dance), echoes Christopher Doyle, not least in its partiality to green filtering. Thematically we feel a sympathy for the work of Wong Kar Wai. The movie is, if nothing else, fascinating to look at with its alternating warm and cool saturated hues and off-kilter framings of a city in ruin. Peter Kam's sweetly contrary music won the Berlin Silver Bear in 2006. If some of its Western themes sound familiar, you might recall the shape of the melodies from the movie he scored just prior to this one, Perhaps Love.

Isabella enjoys a certain cryptic narrative style and prefers to state its story in cinematic terms as much as possible, even if the text is ambiguous at the moment. We aren't told explicitly what Shing's young girlfriend (soon to be Yan's mother) is about to do when he says to her that he will wait for her. The girlfriend, as usual, says nothing. We aren't even told where she is. But from what we know of the story so far we might guess that he is expecting her to have an abortion, which, obviously, she doesn't. It's that kind of a movie.


Image: 6/7   NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were taken directly from the Blu-ray disc.
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

The actual projected aspect ratio is closer to 1:2.43 – a non-issue, really. The image is fairly blemish-free (a few specks here and there) and, while free of transfer artifacts (except for rare and faint edge enhancement), it remains soft, never permitting the viewer to get a firm grip on facial or object textures. This is almost certainly as it is meant to be, and to that extent the image is a faithful representation of the best theatrical experience. Noise is minimal despite deep shadows. My score indicates that the Blu-ray would not be considered demo material for your high def system even if it is accurate in an absolute sense.
















Audio & Music: 7/8
The audio mix is clear enough, with dialogue rendered in proper size and shape. Even though not a Cantonese speaker, I feel I can make out what is said and how it is nuanced, even when whispered or drunkenly mumbled. Surrounds are used subtly and effectively for ambiance, getting the various indoor spaces just right. There is the occasional locational cue, but generally the audio is passive, as is Pang Ho-Cheung's direction. The music is eloquently projected.



The subtitles are clearly expressed in white, placed unobtrusively at the bottom of the frame. The translation is, by and large, in idiomatic English with few usage errors. However there are obvious attempts to clean up the language. Given such streetwise characters it is highly unlikely that "screw" is a word that would come to mind, let alone be spoken. It ruins the mood so carefully set up by the filmmakers. The bilingual menu design is intuitive and easy to use.


Extras: 5
Sad to report that none of the extra features have English subtitles. The big losses for us western monolinguals are three (count them!) audio commentaries and the thirteen minute interview with Isabella Leong, whose performance here garnered critical acclaim and a couple of international acting awards. The commentaries are hosted by different pairings (actor/producer, director/composer cinematographer/screenwriters) each with their unique take on production. I would be tempted to purchase the title again just for a translation.



Bottom line: 8
Even though the title character and lead actress share the same name, the movie should not be construed to be biographical. A curious coincidence, perhaps. In any case Isabella is some distance from the usual film from Hong Kong or China that makes its way to the West. Triads, police action, gunplay and martial arts take a back seat to a film with more nuanced sensibilities, superbly acted by its stars and supporting players. The film has more in common with the Wong Kar Wai in that it dwells on how past attachments insert their way into new relationships. Both directors appreciate the nuance of unrequited love and guilt, especially that of inaction. Isabella is a worthy film, given a respectable life on Blu-ray. Too bad about the lack of English subtitles on the Extra Features, but that shouldn't deter a purchase.

Leonard Norwitz
February 11th, 2010




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About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.

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