PictureIsabella is brought to Blu-ray by MegaStar Video Distribution with a 1080p image encoded using the AVC codec and framed within a theatrically correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The disc itself is region coded A/B, so though while technically it isn't actually region free, for UK/US customers it's the next best thing.
The film has a visual style that will be fairly familiar to fans of Hong Kong cinema. The seediness of run down apartment blocks has all the earthy textures and unkempt living spaces to make the most of a high definition presentation. These interior shots range from the crisp to the slightly soft depending on the lighting utilised. For the more artistic shots, Pang shoots through objects and also splits the focus between foreground and background. This results in some areas of the screen being sharper than others and a touch of inconsistency creeps into the frame.
The lighting is also of a fairly standard Eastern fare, with the often harsh and gaudy street lights being the prime source, which washes the shots to a degree of precise edges and also makes colour judgement a far harder task. From the overall greenish hues that tint many frames, to the bright yellow and bluish tone of other evening/night scenes, the muted shades do seem to hold well and avoid wavering. The skin tones in particular stay consistent throughout and never suffer from the artificiality that can plague actors under neon/fluorescent lights in productions of this scale.
The only real criticism seems that of fairly noticeable specks and a touch of digital noise, but the overall image is one of adequacy even with these niggles. It isn't the sharpest but it is a long way ahead of the softness of some Wong Kar Wai discs, so for that we should be grateful. Once into the sunshine or strong light sources, the results are pleasing to see, with the increased detail of the extra definition becoming evident.
SoundThe Blu-ray of Isabella gives us the choice of three audio tracks: Cantonese Dolby TrueHD 7.1, Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1. For the purposes of this review I focussed on the lossless TrueHD 7.1 option.
Unlike the image, which ranges from darkness to light and close-up to wide vista, the sounds emanating from the speakers are of a fairly uniform nature. This is primarily a work of quiet and pauses. Much like the silence of a Beat Takeshi film, Pang has tried to wring every ounce of emotion out of subtle looks and body language. Thus this was never likely to be a grandstanding workout for your new equipment.
The centre channel, when called into action, gives the voices a nice richness to them and keeps dialogue clear (to my ears - though obviously I don't speak any Chinese dialects). The rears aren't used a great amount as there is little to no action other than a few broken bottles but they cope capably when they get a very light workout. Bass, similarly, is of a good standard in terms of being tight and integrating into the mix but is obviously very sparsely noticed. Just about everything associated with this disc's audio options is perfunctory, with the one exception being that of the music. Peter Kam's compositions deserved the best and they are handled in a fitting manner by this lossless track. The gentle reverberation of plucked guitar strings is perfectly balanced against the crisp high frequencies of the piano solos. This may not be a great demo in terms of steerage and envelopment of the viewer in a 360 degree soundscape but the score is certainly enough to make this worth a listen.
ExtrasTrailer - 1080p - 2:45
Making of - 480p - 14:10
A fourteen minute making of may seem like a nice prospect but the poor image quality and lack of English subtitles will no doubt put most off.
Deleted scenes - 480p - 4:47
Three scenes made up of: Shing at the clinic, Shing and Yan eating and Shing at the lighthouse. Again, no English subtitles.
Isabella Leong interview - 480p - 4:47
No English subtitles.
We are given the choice of three audio commentary tracks, the first is with actor and producer Chapman To and actress Isabella Leong, the second is with director Pang Ho-Cheung and music composer Peter Kam and the third is with director of photography Charlie Lam and screenwriters Derek Tsang, Jimmy Wan and Kearan Pang. Sadly there is no option for on-screen English subtitles.
It's hard to mark these extras down based purely on the lack of subtitles as the disc is from Hong Kong. What I can say is that for non Chinese speaking viewers they will have little to no value but to others, the addition of three commentary tracks including one with the director and composer will likely be a huge draw.
VerdictIsabella will be an entirely pleasant surprise for many. There are other more high profile Eastern film-makers who have gained great critical acclaim amongst Western critics and fans of lo-fi indie stylings but Pang Ho-Cheung deserves to be a name on the lips of these observers. Here he has made a film of unique subtlety and nuanced emotion that shifts seamlessly from dark beginnings to absurd familial tenderness with great ease. It is a work of fluidity and finely crafted pacing that injects something into every shot and to the edges of every frame.
The disc itself is perhaps less dazzling but it succeeds in its job of allowing viewers to see the film without any major distractions. The image is a tad inconsistent, but no more than most other low budget Chinese films. The audio does a similarly satisfactory job, punctuating the long moments of silence with clear dialogue and allowing Peter Kam's exquisite compositions to breathe. The extras may not please those without the skill of understanding Chinese but that is a risk of importing a Hong Kong disc and one for which I can't justify marking down significantly.
If you haven't seen Isabella and wonder if the comparisons to the works of Wong Kar Wai are applicable, then I recommend you take the time to check this film out and decide for yourself - it was enough to convince me.
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