At times stunningly graceful and picturesque and in other instances downright pedestrian and tragically overwrought, director Chen Kaige’s The Promise is a prime example of a filmmaker losing focus due to having seemingly no constraints due to a massive production budget. This is no surprise as we’ve seen this phenomenon before where an almost unlimited budget instead of freeing the mind and letting artistic license soar to new heights instead creates new problems and artificial boundaries that cripple the narrative at hand. With a truck load of cash filmmakers suddenly change their thinking to augmenting their work with copious amounts of superfluous elements that distract and ultimately dilute their core intentions.
Pang Ho-Cheung’s Isabella is at once both incredibly poignant yet also completely manufactured. It’s a work that takes a simple story and expands it to five times its natural length through the overuse of sometimes obtrusive cinematic styling that calls to mind the work of Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai. The movie’s glacial pace sometimes works against it yet the project is redeemed by career performances from its leads Chapman To and especially Isabella Leong. Of the two, Leong is the real shocker having been leaden with a film resume featuring numerous clunkers that rank near the bottom of modern Hong Kong cinema yet here she manages the wholly unlikely feat of presenting a fresh and ebullient character laced with considerable nuance and ends up stealing just about every scene she’s in.