The Taiwanese and Japanese co-production Tea Fight (?茶), actor and theater director Wang Ye-min's (王也民) film directorial debut, opened in Japan last month.
The film's draws are readily apparent, as are its shortcomings. Tea Fight features Nippon's favorite Taiwanese heartthrob, Vic Chou (周渝民) of F4, and teen idol Erika Toda starring in a comically convoluted drama about the two countries' tea cultures. The production lacks cohesion as Wang employed an overly theatrical rather than cinematic approach, with artificial lighting and acting techniques taken straight from the stage.
The film opens with a once-upon-a-time story set in the Song Dynasty and two groups of thriving tea-makers: a bellicose male Black Tea Tribe and a peace-loving female Black Tea Tribe.
The two groups had kept to themselves merrily producing black tea until a male Japanese apprentice from the female side provokes the members of the other group by taunting them about the quality of their tea. In response, the male tea tribe massacres the female tribe and destroys its tea plantations.
Fast-forward to present-day Kyoto, Japan, and Yagi (Teruyuki Kagawa), a descendent of the Japanese apprentice, closes down his tea shop after his wife's death, which he believes was caused by a curse invoked by his forefather.
Anxious to help her father get back on his feet, Yagi's teenage daughter Mikiko (Erika Toda) sets out on a journey to Taiwan to find a descendent of the male tribe after she learns that the only way to break the curse is to beat him in a tea-making competition.
Meanwhile, in Taipei, Yang (Vic Chou, 周渝民) is the ruthless kingpin of an underground tea market and a descendent of the male tea tribe who schemes against Ruhua (Chang Chun-nin, 張鈞甯), a descendent of a member of the female tea tribe who miraculously escaped the massacre. Yagi follows his daughter to Taipei to protect her.
tea fight (鬪茶)
Directed by: Wang Ye-min (王也民)
Starring: Vic Chou (周渝民) as Yang, Erika Toda as Mikiko, Teruyuki Kagawa as Yagi, Chang Chun-ning (張鈞甯) as Ruhua
Running time: 102 minutes
Language: in Mandarin and Japanese with Chinese subtitles
Taiwan release: Today
The denouement doesn't come a moment too soon, when the four meet in what the director probably intended to be a climatic tea-making competition that forces the participants to confront the demons in their hearts. No one wins. The credits roll.
Tea Fight begins with a promising premise that draws elements from the perennial motif of food-making competitions abundant in Japanese comics and animations, and the tale about ancient China is fertile ground for fantasy. The first half of the film looks set to blossom as an attractive commercial flick, as the story about Yagi and Mikiko unfolds in the manner of a J-pop soap opera. However, when the action switches to Taiwan the film loses focus, as it is told through a series of vignettes strung together not by a strong narrative but for visual entertainment. A theatrically lit illegal tea-trading den looks like a stage set, and several sequences have pantomime acting accompanied by voice-overs.
Standing squarely in the spotlight is the blue-haired Vic Chou, who looks like a kitsch computer-game character and delivers the narrow range of emotional expressions that gives pop idols-turned-actors a bad name.
But perhaps not everything is for naught. With scenes of verdant tea plantations and shots of Japan and China, the film may serve some purpose in promoting tourism.