The Reeler

Reviews

February 23, 2007

The Taste of Tea

Character drama meets trippy clip show in Ishii's triumphant family saga

Katsuhito Ishii's The Taste of Tea has taken three years to get even a token theatrical release; thank goodness, then, that it has finally been rescued from the fate of joining the Japanese cult favorites that dominate whole walls of video stores. For the dedicated genre geek, there is always enough time to sift through otherwise undistinguished movies for sequences of batshit insanity; for the rest of us, life is too short to sift through 60+ Takashi Miike movies, where sporadic, inexplicable brilliance battles it out with an undistinguished genre framework. Japanese (and, to a lesser extent, Korean) fanboy favorites are almost always pitched with breathless descriptions of particularly outré moments, and careful omissions of the boredom surrounding them, the equivalent of buying a crappy album for a great single. The Taste Of Tea has enough bizarro sequences to power half a clip party -- in one digression a family watches a "Cave Girl" comedy act on TV which ends with the ostensibly reformed Neanderthal devouring her partner -- but the film is more than a scattershot progression of riffs. Imagine Edward Yang's Yi Yi remade by Miike and you're getting close.

Over 143 minutes, Ishii tracks the gently ebbing fortunes of the Haruno family. Like the Yi Yi clan, they have their generic problems; unlike the one in Yang's film, however, the Harunos are not a barely coherent unit of mutually clashing interests. The family is close enough so that no one feels lonely, but so close as to to stifle their differing interests. Mother Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) wants to resume her career in anime without abandoning family life, and spends her days drawing character designs at home based on poses suggested by grandpa Tatsuya (Akira Todoroki). Son Hajime (Takahiro Sato) suffers the usual pangs of unrequited teen love, quietly unobserved by the rest of the family; 8-year old Sachiko (Maya Banno) is plagued by a gigantic version of herself, and father Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura) works at his hypnosis practice in the city without getting too close to anyone. Just visiting temporarily is Yoshiko's brother Ayano (Tadanobu Asano), on sabbatical from his career as recording engineer.

Ishii draws on a contemplative, Ozu-influenced tradition of family drama; his favorite view of the clan is not from a tatami mat, but a panorama of various family members taking tea on the porch -- not as an enforced, “family dinner” kind of ritual, but based strictly on who's around. Digressions and bizarre fantasies emerge organically from each character's internal conflicts; the result is a film that has it both ways, with its cult sequences and character development both intact. Ishii (whose previous features belong, by all accounts, strictly on the video-store shelf) understands that disruptions mean nothing if they occur constantly, and that without structure a series of incursions mainly the kinds of WTF-clips that play just as well on YouTube as within a narrative.

What startles most is Ishii's scope: a film that appears to be a chronicle of country life unaffected by technology slowly expands its geographical and social reach. Ishii maps a remarkable spectrum, covering both crowded business district landscapes and isolated country homesteads without ever losing his footing. The only fault is in the length, which is too great for what actually happens and courts impatience (even Yang's epic managed to cram in a great deal of melodrama, albeit in sneaky, understated ways). By the end, though, Ishii delivers a miracle: a genuinely euphoric ending of self-realization for one family member, a CGI stunner that is both ridiculously audacious and totally correct for its character. Movies that triumph through character rather than plot are a rarity, and ones whose endings induce genuine happiness (for both characters and viewers) without actually resolving anything doubly so.




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