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Herbal Tea

"Can't you bother Cecilia Cheung instead?"

Candy Lo and Jordan Chan make eyes in Herbal Tea.

Year: 2004
Director: Herman Yau Lai-To
Producer: Ng Kin-Hung, Simon Lui Yu-Yeung
Writer: Herman Yau Lai-To, Simon Lui Yu-Yeung, Kalvin Lee
Cast: Jordan Chan Siu-Chun, Candy Lo Hau-Yam, Li Li-Li, Patrick Tang Kin-Won, Hui Siu-Hung, Spencer Lam Seung-Yi, Belinda Hamnett, Simon Lui Yu-Yeung, Lo Yuen-Yan, Ng Yuen-Yi, Lo Meng, Chan Man-Lui
The Skinny: Though unevenly directed and acted, this unusual romantic comedy from director Herman Yau manages to deliver likable lead characters and some pleasing local atmosphere. Not great, but not bad at all either.
by Kozo:
     Director Herman Yau tackles yet another genre with Herbal Tea, a pleasant but uneven urban romantic comedy with some welcome local flavor. Candy Lo stars as Lam May-Chu, who runs an herbal tea shop in Central. Mei-Chu was left the shop by her parents, whose deaths are recounted with familiar precision in the film's opening moments. Rather than simply telling us that they died, the script (from Herman Yau, Simon Lui and Kalvin Lee) uses exact measures of minutes and inches—just like the famous bits of existentialism used by Wong Kar-Wai in many of his famous works. Why this happens is unknown, but we do get a good handle on just who Mei-Chu is. A hard-working girl, Mei-Chu cares for her neighbors and friends with effort that goes above and beyond the call of duty. She leads morning exercises for elders, babysits kids, brews healing herbal blends for the sick and needy, and generally keeps a cheery face on things. If her neighborhood were Calcutta, Lam Mei-Chu would be Mother Teresa.
     Enter stuntman/actor Dan (Jordan Chan), a too-nice guy who gets swindled daily by his master (Hui Siu-Hung), and is owned by his actress girlfriend Linda (Li Li-Li). Mei-Chu happens to be a massive fan of Linda's, so she's stoked when Dan rents a flat from her. However, the two become fast friends when Linda dumps Dan, leaving him broken-hearted and crying nightly. Mei-Chu makes it her personal mission to care and support Dan, and even helps him see his way through some trying professional times. Anyone with a brain can see that Dan and Mei-Chu are on the highway to romance, but things do get complicated. Linda returns, Mei-Chu stalls, and the realities of their lives start to intrude. Mei-Chu has other, less-attractive suitors, and their low income lives continue to take up tons of time. Eventually the two have to see they're meant for each other, but the development and realization of such a thing is quiet and not overtly stressed. As tense romances go, Herbal Tea is a total snoozer. There has been roadkill with more urgency than this film.
     Then again, urgency is not what director Herman Yau or his screenwriting buddies were apparently aiming for. Despite the predominantly benign tone of the film, Yau makes room for wacky action sequences, unsubtle histrionics, and some obvious sappy flourishes that can be seen coming a mile away. This all-over-the-place storytelling doesn't exactly make romance a primary concern, but beneath the uneven pace are some likable, winning characters, and some common, identifiable themes. Lam Mei-Chu is basically a Hong Kong working class version of Jane Austen's Emma, who is so overly concerned with others that she neglects to look out for herself. As played by Candy Lo, she's a sometimes annoying, but ultimately lovable girl who's well worth rooting for. Likewise, Dan is a righteous, kind fellow who values love over money, and Jordan Chan embodies him with a believable decency. The usual themes of working hard and being true to yourself are doled out efficiently, though not in so egregious a manner that the lessons become cloying or unwelcome. Hong Kong—and in particular Mei-Chu's neighborhood—is portrayed as a supportive, welcome place to live and work. If Mei-Chu's herbal tea cafe existed on our block, we'd likely hang out there all the time too.
     It's the likable characters and fun actors which ultimately make Herbal Tea a minor success. As current Hong Kong Cinema goes, the film will likely not stand out, as it has mundane subject matter, and a cast that is more lukewarm than hot. Furthermore, some of the jokes—in particular the constant, and somewhat bewildering lampooning of Wong Kar-Wai—seem to fall flat rather than sink in. Herbal Tea is full of little things which don't add up to much, such as strange minor characters (Patrick Tang's waiter who longs to be a sumo wrestler), or subplots which aren't properly addressed (Mei-Chu's multiple suitors make themselves known, then subsequently disappear). Still, the sentiments and minor emotions are likable ones, and the film doesn't do anything truly deserving of scorn. The quiet manner in which events transpire will likely bore many viewers, but those who give the film a chance might find something worthwhile in its low-key charms. Make no mistake: this is not a movie that screams quality viewing. But for what Herbal Tea is, it isn't bad. (Kozo 2004)
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Universe Laser
Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1
Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Trailers, Making Of, Photo Gallery

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