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Friday, April 21, 2006

Saying nothing, but with style

Green Tea

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Zhang Yuan
Running time: 89 minutes
Language: Mandarin
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Green Tea" is Zhang Yuan's latest, but those who saw his 2003 smash hit "Wo Ai Ni (I Love You)" are in for a surprise. Whereas "Wo Ai Ni" laid bare the gritty realism of a crumbling East Asian relationship (most of which can be condensed into the single line spoken by the wife, "Why is it me who always has to clean up the apartment?"), "Green Tea" is an exercise in style-over-content.

News photo
Vicky Zhao Wei in "Green Tea"

In this pleasant concoction of fantasy and froth, the "person who cleans up" thing is never an issue, along with other factors of substance/sustenance, because "Green Tea" deals with shifting atmospherics, extended gazes and half-spoken sentences that enhance the nonlogic of the film.

And who better to do the cinematography for such a package than that master capturer of moods and nuance Christopher Doyle ("Chungking Express"), whose frames are covered with a moist, warm sheen so suitable to this particular subject.

Ah, the subject. The whole point of "Green Tea" seems to be that whatever it is, it's not all that important. The central couple seem to confirm it as their attention wanders, away from each other and toward other things or people, just when you think they're about to get intense. In this way, "Green Tea" is evasive, elusive, taking its sweet time to get to any point concrete, and fluttering this way and that like those maddening leaves in a glass of Chinese green tea.

In mainland China, the tea is most often served by pouring hot water directly onto the leaves in tall glasses. Before sipping, you must first wait for the languid swirl of the leaves to settle, otherwise they're likely to get stuck in your throat with the first swallow. Which could be Zhang's way of talking about love. Or females.

Two women figure into the schematics: Fang (Vicky Zhao Wei) is a sedate, bespectacled graduate student in Beijing and Lanlan (also Zhao Wei) is a hotel-lounge pianist. Fang has her hair tied back severely in a bun and is always carrying stacks of books; Lanlan is the typical babe in bold print dresses and makeup to match, who reputedly sleeps with anyone who asks. Zhang doesn't suggest these two women may symbolize something: Despite their stereotypical trappings, there's little that's cliched about their personalities. Fang makes no bones about seeking a lover and to this end goes on one blind date after another. Lanlan, despite her wild-child reputation, shows herself to be surprisingly shy and refined.

Minliang (Jiang Wen) is a single guy who falls for them both, in separate settings. Initially, he answers one of Fang's personal ads and meets her in a cafe. The meeting is a disappointment to them both: Minliang is annoyed that Fang would show up for a first date in unflattering dark pants and no makeup and Fang clearly disapproves of his brash manner and sexist remarks.

But Minliang's interest is piqued when Fang begins to speak of her "girlfriend," who apparently reads love fortunes from the leaves swirling in glasses of green tea. Soon, Minliang becomes as interested in this girlfriend as he is in the teller of her story.

Fang provides new installments every time they meet -- for Minliang it is both the reason and excuse to see Fang. Fang, for her part, continues to go on the blind-date circuit and repeats the same story to all her suitors, but unlike Minliang, they either get bored or frustrated. When pressed to give personal information about herself, Fang coolly shrugs Minliang off with, "Me? There's nothing to say about me." And on every date she sips her signature drink of green tea and refuses to take anything else.

In the meantime, Minliang sees Lanlan playing the piano and is struck by her resemblance to Fang, though the two are exact polar opposites in the way they present themselves. When she deigns to speak to Minliang, Lanlan turns on the charm and is forever snakily leaning against walls and pillars; Fang's posture is always rigidly correct in whatever setting; she looks as if she's about to start stamping library books. Minliang is convinced they are one and the same woman but at the same time he's torn by doubt. Besides, he has never seen Lanlan drink green tea.

Like Minliang, the viewer remains intrigued by Fang/Lanlan if only because she's a woman you don't often encounter in Chinese films: not repressed or under duress, not sad or completely unambitious. And she doesn't even ask for anything apart from the next glass of tea (Fang) or a small cocktail (Lanlan).

The delicately featured Zhao Wei balances a subtle and maddening allure with a hint of intellectual aggression; the seeming effortlessness of her performance translates directly to the characters of the two women. In the end we never know who they really are and whether there's a link, but Zhang suggests Minliang will spend the rest of his life trying to figure them out. It used to be that in cinema, French actresses seemed to have the sole right to this kind of femme. Now they have some competition.

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