24th Israeli Film Festival – Firebirds

It makes me happy for some odd reason, to be in the company of the sons and daughters of Jacob, at the Israeli Film Festival held at the Projector. Lots of warm banter, wine, thick Israeli accents, and the unison of chortles when when an inside joke unfolds in the film.

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Firebirds

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This film derives its title from the second most commonly done tattoo in the world, after the most common one: notoriously ubiquitous number code inked on condemned Jews destined for the gas chambers. Bearers of that cursed mark recollect their miracle of survival with regular gatherings to celebrate their escape. Surprisingly, this club of survivors forged together by the common horror of the Holocaust, has outsiders seeking membership. A broke old bloke who messed up his life with creditors seeks to discard his old identity, taking on a bogus identity of a Jewish refugee. His elaborate plan of surviving his remaining days include scanning through obituaries of Holocaust survivors, and crashing their funeral services to offer support to their grieving widows, claiming that he had known the deceased back in the concentration camps. What he looks for: lonely hearts and a fat bank account.  Ugly and pathetic as this bogus Romek Stein is, he manages to upkeep his facade as a Holocaust survivor, making his sneaky way into the hearts of two old ladies (also Holocaust survivors), and eventually their pockets. He even got himself a fake Auschwitz number code tattoo to back up his tapestry of lies. Ironically, the tattoo artist is pro-Nazi, and accepts odd requests like Auschwitz code tattoos for a hefty price. Anyway, what an accomplishment for a broke pointless man to snag flings with a Vocalist and an ex-surgeon.

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Romek trying his seduction tatics on the surgeon

During a face off with his two lovers, he tries to take his own life by plunging a blade into his chest twice. The third lady who plays the Vocalist’s assistant, clearly disgusted by the old man’s flirtatious and conning antics, finishes the job by cutting into his aorta and the leading man from whole drama, for the time being.

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Face off

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Amnon with his ex wife

Detective Amnon, who was charged to solve the case against his wishes, added the cool-guy factor with his dry humor,  attitude, and his fuzziness displayed to his little girl. His laid back attitude toward life and his dogged insistence to solve the case draws attention to the effect of the Holocaust in a Jew’s life. For instance, tapping into his estranged wife’s contacts to search for legit Holocaust survivors, clocking late nights scouring through Holocaust survivors linked to the case. On his laidback side, he helps his daughter tape a video account of his mother’s Holocaust experience, to which he rolls his eyes at his mother’s tongue-in-cheek fictional version, with unicorns and rainbows in the story. I could almost feel him scoffing at the murder victim for devising such despicable means, capitalizing on macabre events of the Holocaust, to get money. In addition, that reluctance to accompany his mum on boring theatre shows, late payments for child support to his ex wife, and that standoffish attitude to his demanding boss, lends an edge to his character. He has an interesting wit to join the dots and connect seemingly disparate points into a complete puzzle, sadly only lacking the evidence to prosecute 3 shrewd old women who cleaned up their tracks so artfully, without a sliver of a trace left. What could have resulted in a turnaround in Amnon’s lackluster career was wasted, and the animosity still lingers when he crosses path with the old surgeon lady, months later, at a Holocaust reunion night he attends with his mum. The thorns in their eyes, with the feisty waltz music in the background, strikes an amusing discordance.

It’s also interesting to note that the human desire for attention and flirting does not decrease with age. Some of the more intimate scenes did leave me cringing. It has nothing to do with being ageist, but rather, the disgust at Romek’s rottenness and scheming. The sagging skin and and loose chunks of flesh clinging onto bones only amplifies that grossness.

You weren’t born to just pay bills and die, you must suffer a lot.

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Dark humor amidst dark times. Can’t imagine I’m posting such stuff on my birthday. As time goes on, I realised how imperfect life can get, and I wonder how my parents made it through. Respect. Detours, valleys, uncertainty, disappointment. Just now when I was taking a walk in the park, it suddenly dawned upon me that I had made it through 25 years on this crazy planet. I mean, I could have died in a car crash or given up on life, but here I am, alive and breathing, walking into the future after braving massive storms. I think I deserve a standing ovation for having made it thus far. Happy blessed birthday, Stephanie, I love you. One day you’ll look back and understand, that perhaps, everything had happened for a purpose.

 

In the mood for love

Cheongsams. Handbags. Ties. Wonton noodles. A Martial Arts Script. These are some of the articles Wong Kar Wai uses to paint a tale of infidelity. Two next-door neighbours find themselves entrenched in the loneliness an absent partner, and frequently crossing paths on their wonton noodle takeaway routines and solo trips to the cinema. So began their clandestine dates until the other neighbors sniffed something fishy (this is conservative HK in the 1960s). In another plot mirror/parallel, they find out both their absent partners had been cheating with each other, while talking about handbags and ties, uncovering more than what meets the eye as coincidence. I particularly like the camera panning in that scene. The zoomed-in frame swoops back and forth to capture sombre expressions, as the revelation of an affair unfolds.

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Cheating and swopping partners are old plot lines. But the cinematography here is stunning. What the director focuses on is reveals cleverness in storytelling. For instance, we hear the voices and feel the impact of the cheating spouses, but have not seen their faces in frame.

The numerous cross-cutting scenes without chronological order or narrative makes you pay attention to draw your own conclusions based on subtle hints. He even revealed the name of the sequel, 2046, the number plate on door of Chow (Tony Leung’s) hotel room door. Music was also artfully employed. Mournful cello music and Nat King Cole’s jazz number, ‘Quizas,Quizas,Quizas’ (perhaps, perhaps,perhaps), amps up the glamour of strolling down the dingy back-alleys of 1960s HK (not forgetting the star power of the leading man and lady, decked out in Cheongsam and a dapper suit). The calculated expressions of emotion between Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are rather ambiguous and restrained, making the act of cheating seem like a chore.

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I thought the dialogue between the couple in focus explored some interesting things about being bound to someone by way of a marriage (contract). To be single, you’re only responsible for your own happiness and success, but in a marriage, the other half’s success or lack of it has a bearing on your personal standing.

The film ends with Tony Leung whispering his repressed feelings of lost love into a stone hollow in the derelict wall in Angkor Wat. After doing so, he stuffs up the crevice with grass and runs away into the distance, burying those secrets forever. It’s a melodramatic and a somewhat amusing sight to see a grown man trusting that a hole in a wall would never betray his secrets.

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