Monday, May 16, 2011

Zhou Wei in "Green Tea"

Chen is lonely, a bit desperate and socially inept. His first meeting with Fang, a blind date at a cafe, ends very badly when she walks out on him after a few minutes then gets worse when her runs after her and asks her to go to a hotel with him. There doesn’t seem to be much of a future between the self-contained Fang (Zhou Wei) and the forlorn Chen (Jiang Wen) but he is so clumsily persistent that she continues to meet with him, always during the day and always in public, drinking tea and coffee at cafes. Fang and the audience know everything about Chen right away—he has had three relationships with women, the most recent one ending horribly for him. He and his fiancĂ© had been together for years and had just finished building a house together when she left him for a friend of his. Devastated, he tells people he has just met about his misfortune. There isn’t much difference between public and private for Chen.

Fang, on the other hand, refuses to have any recognizable public face at all. She says she is a graduate student in comparative literature and early in the movie is always carrying several books but Chen isn’t able to find her at the university—which he should have been able to do since Zhang Yuan’s Beijing isn’t simply uncrowded it is all but unpopulated. Fang refuses to talk about her past, instead telling Scheherazade-like stories of a friend in graduate school. The stories are lurid, bloody and filled with crime and violent death—either her friend killed her father or the friend’s mother did; someone’s arm might have been cut off; someone was stabbed, someone else smashed with a cast iron wok, the friend might have been unconscious throughout the entire ordeal. Fang tells the horrific details flatly, almost without affect, but in great detail. She seems either to be talking about her own life but has been able to distance herself from the acts themselves or is making things up as she goes along. We never really find out which is the case but like the king in Scheherazade, are endlessly fascinated by the teller and the tale.

Chen has a friend, a debonair man about town who takes him to a cocktail lounge where a beautiful piano player is available to any of the well-heeled customers who approach her. Chen is shocked to see that the pianist, Lang, looks exactly like Fang. She also tells elaborate stories about the past—some about her, others about friends. Fang has a friend who can read fortunes using tea leaves; Lang uses tea leaves to read fortunes. Fang, however, is so reserved that she seems withdrawn and distant, unwilling in every way to share anything about herself while Lang has, as she says, “hundred of boyfriends”, men from whom she accepts money in exchange for a few hours of her time. Whether she talks to them, listens to them or has sex with them is all the same to her. She is just as emotionally distant as Fang, just more flamboyant on the surface.

Jiang Wen and Zhao Wei as Lang, the nightclub pianist

Chen is hard to like at first. He is oafish, clumsy, crude and needy—in other words he is everything that men don’t want to be when approaching a woman. At first we think that Fang was right when she originally walked out on him and don’t understand why she lets him hang around. But Jiang Wen is so perfectly unthreatening in the role and so doggedly determined, if not to win Fang’s heart and body at least get to know her, that we are soon on his side. Even when he takes his lack of a private life to an extreme—when he bursts into his friends bedroom while his friend and a girl are asleep and refuses to leave until his friend agrees to hear his tale of woe—we feel sorry for him.

Like Chen, the audience falls in love with Fang immediately, not least because she is played by Vicki Zhou Wei who is beautiful and extravagantly talented. By the time Lang arrives on the scene we are ready for anything including Zhou Wei as the party girl opposite of her icy grad student.

The question which isn’t answered is whether Fang and Lang are the same person. Clearly they look exactly alike, they have many of the same mannerism and their schedules fit perfectly. Lang plays the piano between 8:00 and 10:00 every evening, just the time that Fang either has a class or a blind date. If they are two sides of the same person, twins or not related in any way doesn’t need to be known, of course—the beauty of “Green Tea” is in the stories, both the one we see unfolding on the screen and those told by Fang and Lang.

Christopher Doyle belongs on any shortlist of great cinematographers. In a movie structure like this, essentially a two character, three act play, a short story opened out, the camera can very easily be intrusive. Here it never is—Doyle’s camera keeps exactly the right distance with a lot of medium shots, some steadicam shots outside and a few extreme close-ups and takes us right to the edge of the action without ever intruding. There are a shots that are stunning in themselves, especially one of a meeting between Fang and Chen at a restaurant. There are place settings shot from above intercut with close-ups of Zhao Wei as they talk.

Place setting as cinematic still life.

The table is a work of minimalist art with small, pure white plates of rice and with spoons on each side of a colorful salad or main dish. The food arrives and is taken away by the hands of an otherwise unseen waiter, having been untouched by Chen and Fang. The shots from above are so perfectly composed that in another context they would seem flashy or self-indulgent but here they serve the story, illustrating the isolation of both of the characters, trying and failing to communicate. There are plenty of shots of green tea leaves swirling in a glass, lovely in themselves but used a bit too often.

Doyle’s palette consists of greys, browns and blues. They are muted tones but not pastel, more akin to the deep burnished shades of the 16th century Flemish masters. The set design is simple and very effective with most of the scenes taking place in cafes or cocktail lounges that are opulently minimalist. Lang’s red and white dress is one of the few splashes of color in the movie and all the more effective for it.

“Green Tea” is an art film with the “auteur” stamp firmly affixed and the decently done story of a relationship that could be anywhere and any time. Zhang Yuan’s script, unfortunately, is too delicate a branch to bear the emotional weight of the characters and the potential for disaster of their interaction so it is ultimately unsatisfying although on a very high level.


  1. "The question which isn’t answered is whether Fang and Lang are the same person."

    I'm glad you wrote that because I remember watching Green Tea and feeling like a moron because I couldn't answer that question myself.

    Your screencaps are nice. I remember now how lovely the film looked. Reminded me of Faye Wong's Leaving Me, Loving You (?) which had great cinematography but not much else.

  2. I think that one of the contrasts/parallels that Zhang Yuan wanted to draw was how Chen's personality is completely on the surface for all to see even though most people don't want to see it as opposed to Lang/Fang about whom no one knows anything and them more one tries to learn the less is known.

    He had a lot of good ideas but not much execution.