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Black Tea

After shockingly dumping her husband-to-be at the altar, African woman starts a new life in Taiwan, in a movie with the visual panache of Wong Kar-Wai - from the Official Competition of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival


This isn’t the happiest day in the lives of Aya (Nina Melo) and Toussaint (Franck Pycardhy). Their marriage goes terribly awry after the woman says “no, I don’t” to the priest, after he asks her the all-so-important question. She wishes Toussaint all the best and then promptly departs, leaving the countless guest dumbfounded. Next, she drops the white wedding dress and puts on a killer outfit, before swapping her native Ivory Coast for a very distant Taiwan. Her metamorphosis happens to the sound of Feeling Good, sung by a female voice (not Nina Simone) in a native African language and then in English. The lyrics “It’s a new life, it’s a new day, and I’m feeling good” leave little doubt as to the sentiments of our female protagonist.

Aya moves to a district of Taipei with a large African community, and soon lands a job in the local tea store, owned by a soft-spoken and elegant middle-aged man called Wang Cai (Chang Han). He teaches her the nuances of drinking tea: “first you taste the atmosphere, then the flavours, and finally the affect”. The gorgeous Aya indeed becomes affected: she falls in love with the older man. She is confident that he possesses the qualities that Toussaint lacked, but she finds out that he too is fallible. Are all men the same, after all? Wang is separated from his wife of 20 years and has two children, including one out of wedlock with another African woman, from Cape Verde. He clearly has a taste for black tea, and that’s indeed the nickname that he bestows upon his latest romantic conquest.

Li-Ben (Michael Wang) is Wang’s eldest child. He has a Chinese mother, the friendly and warm Ying (Wu Ke-Xi), who welcomes Aya with open arms. He’s a caring 20-year-old trying to instil noble values into his father and also into his grandparents. Grandpa is overtly racist, with a particular grudge against black people. He finds the comparison between African and monkeys rather accurate and amusing) Wang is predictably embarrassed to introduce his African partner to his folks, but Aya has a surprise in store for the family (in one of the film’s funniest and most beautiful scenes). Wang’s other child, a woman called Eva, lives in Africa with her mother. Wang dreams of visiting her, but he’s too afraid that it could end in tears as he returns home.

Directed by Mauritania-born Mali filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, Black Tea boasts an elegant cinematography with abundant artificial lighting and impeccable photography of black skin (no doubt aided by Nuna Melo’s stunning looks). It has the visual panache and the aesthetic elegance of Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love (2000), also a film about extramarital relations and unlikely bonding (set in Hong Kong). A sequence in the tea fields, where Wang explains to Aya that all infusions come from the same plant, is exceptionally beautiful and elaborate. The sequences in town are mostly at night, giving the movie an aura of sophistication.

The story, on the other hand, is not on a par with the imagery. Melo and Han have very little chemistry. The script denies our two lovebirds any possibility of intimacy: there is no sex, no kissing and barely any touching, Except of course for the tea-drinking lessons. The amount of caffeine in black tea may be enough to keep you awake, but not to enrapture or to arouse you, Overall, he story lacks vigour and vim. There are quite a few loose ends, and redundant scenes. For example, Aya and Ying have a very brief haptic interaction, but I have no idea whether this is intended to symbolise a blooming Lesbian romance, or the Jolene type of affection. Either way, the scene is not convincing. Plus, Melo and her character Aya lack a little stamina; she is a not a remarkable role model of female emancipation. This is a little at odds with the message of liberation in the film’s opening scene. Just like tea that’s been left to brew for too long, Sissako’s new creation has some rich notes however it’s rather lukewarm.

Black Tea just premiered in the Official Competition of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 22-02-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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