'Noodle' returns to Jewish Israeli film fest

By Barry Paris Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Noodle" opened the 2008 Pittsburgh Jewish Israeli Film Festival and retuns for a single showing this weekend. Here's a reprint of what PG film critic Barry Paris wrote last year.

Remember "The Man Who Came to Dinner" -- that guest who fell and ended up staying more or less permanently? This is "The Boy Who Came to Help Clean."

His name is -- well, Miri has no idea. He's the 6-year-old son of her Chinese maid, who brought him along to help. When Miri comes home from a long day's work as an El Al flight attendant, the mother begs her to watch the kid "just for one hour" while she runs an urgent errand.

But mama never comes back to claim him.

Melancholy Miri (Mili Avital) is a two-time widow with yet another preexisting domestic problem: cynical, sharp-tongued sister Gila (Anat Waxman), with whom she shares their Tel Aviv apartment. Gila is bitter about her impending divorce from Izzy (Alon Aboutboul), who works and flirts with Miri.

Talk about tension. Not to mention sibling rivalry. Both of their lives have been screwed up, and the resultant bickering never ends.

"I'm sorry you were offended," Gila says.

"You're sorry you offended me?" Miri corrects.

"I'm sorry I was born," she replies.

A cease fire and some kind of alliance are necessary to figure out what to do -- and how to communicate -- with a shell-shocked boy who speaks no Hebrew.

Gila asks what his name is.

"I don't know -- Mao Tse-Tung," Miri guesses.

They settle on "Noodle" and set forth to find his mom.

Of the uniformly fine performances adorning the film, none is better than little BaoQi Chen's in the title role. Picked and plucked from 2,000 candidates in Hong Kong and Shanghai, he is as darling as they come, whether sitting immobile and staring at a table top or (occasionally) freaking out or gorging himself on Chinese take-out.

In my favorite scene, he teaches Miri and Gila the proper way to shovel and slurp-suck noodles (with accompanying noise and face spatter). The waif's quiet "oooh," when he finds out about Miri's husbands, will tug at your heartstrings.

Director-writer Ayelet Menachemi ("Tel Aviv Stories") moves things along briskly, with the help of many convenient coincidences: A passenger on one of Miri's flights is Gila's ex-lover -- who happens to be fluent in Mandarin. Overall, there's more matchmaking than in "Hello Dolly." But momentum drives melodrama, and vice versa, in the film's suspenseful final gambit.

"Noodle" goes down easy -- a perfect opener for the 15th annual Pittsburgh Jewish-Israeli Film Festival. It's a gentle, "Kolya"-esque, feel-good family fairytale.

Bring some Kleenex.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris can bereached at parispg48@aol.com . First Published March 26, 2009 4:00 AM

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