Friday, September 05, 2008

[Israel Film Festival] Noodle

The Guardian

What would you do if you were to find a child under your custody through no choice of your own, but having it dropped onto your lap? And to make things worse, you cannot communicate with the child because of the lack of language skills both ways? Director Ayelet Menahemi weaved a poignant and heartwarming tale about the bridging of differences and culture, and at its core, a very human story about doing what's right, and the innate goodness everyone possesses in a world without strangers.

Miri (Mili Avital) is a flight attendant with El Al (perhaps one of the most secure and safest airlines in the world) whose life turned upside down with her cleaning lady's son being left in her apartment and failing to return when responding to a phone call. Together with sister Gila (Anat Waxman) and Gila's estranged husband Izzy (Alon Abutbul), they try collectively to figure out exactly what to do with him, with embassies and the authorities being out of the question because of his complicated, illegal status, lest they be burdened with the guilt of his non-return to his mother in a blackbox, bureaucratic process.

In what would at first be confused resentment, nicknaming the child at first as "Mao", that emotion will soon turn into endearment and affection, given that "Mao" would become a proxy to the healing process that would in its own way iron out the vastly complex, dysfunctional relationships between almost everyone in the movie, with envious emotions, jilted ex-boyfriends, and personal tragedy all rolled into one, where it seemed that being in denial of their true emotions was the order of the day. Through the series of zany events experienced through carrying out their humanitarian effort, the characters soon discover their inner strength and courage to face their deficiencies.

It brings to mind that food will probably be one of the greatest levellers and ice-breakers, and in one scene where the child, now nicknamed "Noodle", would share his culture through the simple act of slurping, well, noodles, just demonstrates that. By then, gone is the abandoned boy fearful in a strange world, and in his place is now a confident, assured child that his temporal guardians would figure a way out for him to get home. And Chen BaoQi is a remarkable actor, being able to tug at your heartstrings without going over the top in milking his cute factor. Here's a natural in action, taking on deftly the many facets of his character in a full spectrum of emotions from despair to pure joy.

While the movie might seemed to have hinged heavily on Chen's wonderful performance, let's not forget the other major story arc of the two sisters Miri and Gila, and the host of supporting characters that play a huge part in fleshing out and making the entire movie so rich. In fact, I felt that it had so much going on, that it was quite amazing how director Ayelet Menahemi managed to put them all together without bloating the run time, or to have the sub plots overrun into a rampaging monster. Each character was carefully crafted to have their respective back stories, and you can't help but feel sympathetic for Miri as she locks her heart after being luckless with her love life, in having not 1 but 2 husbands killed in war, being childless and with an obvious growing attachment to the boy, where you know that in doing the right thing, she'll suffer from yet another broken heart from having a man (or boy in this case) walk away from her life. This pain again brought out wonderfully by Mili Avital's very understated acting.

Her school teacher sister Gila's life is equally tragic, as she grapples with a long secret, hiding it under an acerbic tongue and wry sense of humour, in always wanting to have the last word. It's quite common for people to try and mask their insecurities under a bold front, and Anat Waxman's performance here provided much tragic-comic relief in her interactions with the rest of the characters. Essentially the story's quite woman-centric with alpha-type females (or at least on the surface) triumphing over the pretty much wishy-washy male characters played by Alon Abutbul and Yiftach Klein, but it takes a collective effort of everyone to be able to pull off a daring stunt.

It's no wonder that the film had secured that many award nominations in the 2007 Israeli Film Academy, or that it won the Special Grand Prize of the Jury at the 2007 Montreal World Film Festival. Nothing beats having to witness characters grow with one another, in a touching drama where little moments speak volumes from the heart.

The opening film of this year's Israel Film Festival, additional screenings are at The Picturehouse on Monday 8 Sep 715pm, Wednesday 10 Sep 715pm and Friday 12 Sep 715pm.

Left: Director Ayelet Menahemi

Director Ayelet Menahemi was in attendance at the screening of Noodle today to conduct a discussion with the audience, and this festival marked the first time the movie is screened in Asia where the language of the child, in Chinese, is understood. As always, there might be slight spoilers included, so avoid it if you have low tolerance. Here's an excerpt of this evening's discussion:

Q: How was the story conceived?
Ayelet Menahemi (AM): It was 8, 9 years ago during a meditation course in India, where the mind was on the contrary, working hard at throwing ideas at you. The whole story came up, including the poster, the song, the dialogue, and even the name of the movie! In that one month course, I came out happy with what the meditation achieved; the story in hand. You can trace a few elements in the film that had real life influences. For example, I had met a senior flight attendant 2 years before the meditation course, and she had lost 2 husbands, which can happen in Israel. She had a very inspiring and vivid personality, and served as script consultant for those parts involving the airport and flight. I also travelled to China, and had experienced first hand the alienation and no being able to feel anything. Thirdly, Israel had faced a big problem with illegal immigrants, which led to the creation of the Immigration police, who in the beginning had employed questionable methods in deporting these immigrants back. Of course now the department had settled down and are able to do what they need to do without violating too many rights. Fourthly, which is based on a personal reason, was when I was younger and my parents went abroad, I'm not sure how many of you fantasize about travelling in a suitcase in order to follow them! Of course in today's harsh reality this wouldn't be able to happen.

Q: How long did it take to translate your idea into the script?
AM: I'm very slow, and was doing some other stuff in between. It took me about 6 years to complete the screenplay, and then to seek funding, to shoot it and perform the post production, which took another 2 more years.. It was a long time, too long.

Q: How did you get to discover Chen BaoQi?
AM: Initially we thought of looking for the child actor in America, but the problem is that they might struggle with the character being alienated, and we wanted some authenticity in that. So we started to look in the East, then looked to Taiwan too, before we decided to follow the soul of the story, which meant he had to be found in China. Some 2000 kids were auditioned, and it took 5 months to narrow down to 3. So we flew to Shanghai, and that morning it became very clear the BaoQi was the one. He can't speak Hebrew or English, and had never been away from China before. It was clear this was the way to go, and his mother recognized the opportunity and allowed him to stop school for a while, where she deemed the experience he will gain will be more beneficial than the 2 months of school that he will miss. Being a school teacher, she can't follow him, so the father followed him to Israel one month before the shoot.

Ayelet Menahemi was also full of praise for BaoQi's professionalism, given that he had practically no acting experience save for bit parts in commercials, and shared with us that he was put through acting workshops, and shared that he actually hated noodles and preferred rice, and had to learn how to slurp, which his character does expertly in the story.

Q: Were there any concerns about putting the weight of the movie on the boy's shoulders?
AM: Definitely. We were very scared, as he could break down given that he's away from home, and a child. But he was extremely disciplined, and soon after the thought dissipated. But yes, initially we were afraid.

Q: Why was there a need for the extra twist with Miri's sister and her lover and husband?
AM: Just as how this is a story of a woman and child getting together, crossing differences and saving each other's souls, it's also about the two sisters. There's plenty of cynicism, informality and how each gets into the other's life and messes around each other's business. I wanted to show her life and the soap opera the is going around. The story is improbable as it is, but without help from the others, it wouldn't be completed. And also for Mira to prove to Gila that she could do it, given the latter always gives her that condescending and patronizing attitude.

Q: Why the inclusion of the dog?
AM: I like dogs and always include them into my films, and to call all of them Bambi if I can, because it's kind of silly to have the name of another animal. In fact, BaoQi hates dirty dogs, and Bambi unfortunately was a little stinking and he couldn't stand it. But there's a lesson on professionalism for you as he got through the scene. Even the sandwich he was trying to grab, well BaoQi actually disliked that bread too, but had to look like he was craving for it.

The director also revealed that different cameras were used for the shoot in China, and they had to go "commando" there because they were faced with deadlines to complete the shoot, and hence for the train station scene, had to go with a more conventional shot.

Q: Did it feel different in watching this film in an Asian country with a Chinese speaking audience?
AM: Well, people laugh at different places, at the Chinese parts, which was wonderful. If you realized, the Chinese language portions are not subtitled, as I wanted the non-Chinese speaking audience to go through the same experience as Miri and Gila, of not being able to understand, of experiencing the feeling of loss and insecurity. For the people in Asia who understand both sides, I think it's great. Apart from that, audience reaction is quite similar because it's a human story after all.

Q: The characterization of women is much stronger than men in the film. Is that deliberate?
AM: I think the men in the story allowed themselves to be more sensitive, and a lot more of care, love and get hurt. And of course there are women who are strong. I wasn't working on stereotypes, but yes, in the story the women are strong and distant, while the men are just like teddy bears!

Ayelet Menahemi also recalled that Noodle was supposed to be the first China-Israel co-production, but unfortunately, the Chinese had conditions for the film to implement, that being to take out all references of being illegal immigrants (because Chinese don't do such things), and for the entire Customs scene near the end to be removed. Naturally these were crucial to the plot, and hence the deal fell through. She would like for as many Chinese to see the film as possible though, and didn't mind and would be flattered if the film was pirated and makes it to the Chinese shores. To round up the discussion, she also recounted how guerilla styled filming was done in China, where the camera used was a handheld one, and that it was really a miracle to have pulled it off through plenty of improvisation.

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