When Isabella Wei was cast in the hit Netflix mystery series 1899 in 2020, she was 16 years old and still at school. Now 18, Wei is on the verge of becoming a household name in her home city, a rise to success she credits, in part, to the youth drama programme she became involved with as a teenager.
She stars as Ling Yi in the noirish drama, which landed on the streaming service to acclaim this month after premiering its first two episodes at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The series, directed by Baran bo Odar of mega-hit series Dark, follows a multilingual cast on an immigrant ship headed for New York in the year 1899, when a mysterious turn of events unfolds, yielding mind-bending riddles for its passengers. Wei’s character is a Cantonese-speaking 17-year-old from Hong Kong who is trafficked as a comfort woman, disguised as a geisha. “My character has a lot of secrets,” she says.
“The show speaks a lot about human connection and how we deal with crisis. What happens when a group of people who don’t know each other are brought together? Do they work together or do they fall apart? I think it speaks a lot about what we’re seeing in society today.”
Filming took place in Berlin in 2021 during the height of the pandemic, requiring Wei to spend several months away from home at a time when returning to Hong Kong required three weeks’ quarantine. “I was lucky to be able to travel, but I couldn’t come home in between filming. When I landed the role, I thought I might have to change schools because I was in the middle of my IB [international baccalaureate] programme at school.” Luckily, Chinese International School, where she was studying at the time, was accommodating, and Wei was able to continue learning from Germany. “I’m so grateful: I even got to graduate,” she says.
Wei’s launch into the spotlight was thanks to a gentle nudge from Lindsey McAlister, founder of the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation (HKYAF) which, since 1993, has trained young people in the performing arts, and which Wei first joined as a dancer. McAlister heard there was a Netflix show casting in Hong Kong, and put Wei forward for an audition. “It was super nerve-racking. I had a Zoom audition [with Odar]. I had never done an audition for anything out of my comfort zone before. I thought I had no chance of getting the part,” Wei recalls.