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Tea Fight
Tea Fight

Erika Toda and Vic Chou take a break from tea battles in Tea Fight.
Chinese: 鬪茶  
Year: 2008  
Director: Wang Ye-Ming  
  Writer: Akane Yamada, Wang Ye-Ming
  Cast: Teruyuki Kagawa, Erika Toda, Vic Chou, Janine Chang, Eric Tsang Chi-Wai, King Shih-Chieh
  The Skinny:

It's on! This dramedy about an ancient tea curse is a low-key manga movie that's as entertaining as it is completely bizarre. Tea Fight is amusing if you don't take it seriously. It's bewildering if you do.

by Kozo:

Here's an exclamation you probably don't hear very often: "Tea Fight!" Director Wang Ye-Ming's Tea Fight is an original creation, though one would be forgiven if they mistook it for one of the numerous "based on manga" movies hitting the international multiplexes. Let's see: it takes an exotic Asian topic (tea culture), applies bogus legends and cultural concepts, gives the whole subject undue reverence, and features oddball characters who seem to think they're behaving in a perfectly normal manner. Undercranked chase sequences and a convoluted love pentagon seal the deal on this one. Tea Fight is basically a shonen manga brought to life, except it's an original concept, and lacks the truly over-the-top craziness that one might expect of the genre. As silly manga movies are concerned, this is a rather low-key one, and earns cred not because it's really that good, but because it's so strange and so "special" that it entertains. Sometimes lowering your expectations is a good thing.

Tea Fight opens with an animated sequence (handled by Studio 4C°, the guys behind Tekkon Kinkreet) detailing "The Legend of the Rare Tea Leaves". As the story goes, there were two legendary teas in Ancient China, the "Male Golden Tea" and the "Female Golden Tea." The male variety makes its drinkers violent and uncouth, while the female variety calms the soul and makes people generally mellow. Combining the two is the key to immortality, but unfortunately, the female tea was lost to history when the owners of the male tea (a surly lot who resemble Ancient Chinese frat boys) got all huffy and exterminated the tea in a fit of jealousy. You see, once upon a time, the two teas were pitted against each other in a Tea Fight - which, despite its cool name, is little more than a spruced-up tea tasting competition. The Male Golden Tea backers expected a landslide victory, but were denied, so they went bananas and slaughtered everything in sight, eventually burning all the Female Golden Tea while under the influence of their adrenaline-kicking Male Golden Tea. The obvious modern lesson to this charming cultural tale? Just say "no".

However, some Female Golden Tea did survive, thanks to visiting Japanese tea master Saemon Yagi. He fled back to Japan, where he harvested the tea, eventually passing it along to his ancestors, who now have a Female Golden Tea bush in their backyard. Unfortunately the tea comes saddled with a terrible curse, bringing oodles of bad luck to anybody who deals with the Female Golden Tea. Former tea master Kei Yagi (Teruyuki Kagawa) blames his wife's death on the curse, and chooses to have nothing to do with tea anymore, regardless of the tea's origin, gender, or aroma. Now he spends his time getting drunk and wandering through a series of crappy jobs. However, his daughter Mikiko (the adorable Erika Toda) rebels, and hightails for Taiwan to attend a tea school against her father's wishes. But Mikiko has an ulterior motive besides becoming an expert tea master: she wants to reunite the Male and Female Golden Teas. Doing so will supposedly lift the family curse, plus force her father to sober up, shave, get a decent job, and join the rat race like the rest of the sad sacks out there. It's like a reverse afterschool special, only with tea instead of drugs, alcohol, smoking, or an addiction to Pokemon.

However, maybe Dad was right about the evils of tea. Mikiko's trip to Taiwan brings her into contact with dangerously handsome bad boy Yang (Vic Chou of the boy band formerly known as F4), a smoldering gangster whose blue-tinted hair and lavender outfit earmark him as an obvious refugee from a Pepsi commercial (Chou does, in fact, push Pepsi all over Asia). Yang is a player on the Taiwan Tea Black Market, who uses chicanery to win underground Tea Fights. He's also the heir to the Male Golden Tea, and now desires to find the Female Golden Tea to, uh, do something. It's actually hard to figure out exactly what he wants, but Yang's overdone behavior overshadows any actual motivation or backstory that his character possesses. Vic Chou overacts Yang's smarmy intensity to the point of combustible laughter. The performance is charismatic, hilarious, and undeniably watchable - a triple threat that could make Chou the odds-on favorite for a "Best Overacting" award.

Yang's pathos gets even more overwrought when it's revealed that he was once involved with mysterious tea agent Ruahua (Janine Chang). When Kei rushes to Taiwan after Mikiko, he chances into the sultry Ruahua, who runs her elegant hands all over the middle-aged man's body while simultaneously feeling him out for some hint of tea-scented action. Apparently, Ruahua's tea talents are rooted in lurid seduction, while Yang's talents make him a charismatic but smarmy bastard. Tea makes Kei overwrought and needlessly melodramatic, and Kagawa sells his character by acting tortured and even psychically pained. Sometimes Kei seems like he's about to explode from the terrible emotions welling up from inside his scarred heart - even when he's just walking down the street. Kei's bizarre seriousness makes Teruyuki Kagawa another candidate for Best Overacting honors. Let's hand out the rest of the nominations: Erika Toda is up for "Most Adorable", while Ning Chang is a slam dunk for "Most Needlessly Seductive". Taiwanese actor King Shih-Chieh should win "Best Morgan Freeman Impression" for his turn as a grave tea master who utters the immortal line, "Tea has no sins." Everybody can win an award for Tea Fight.

What award should writer-director Wang Ye-Ming get? Probably none, though he should be congratulated for convincing someone to bankroll this strange, oddly entertaining piñata of a film. Tea Fight uses its tea battles and overly-serious cultural shenanigans to sell an inspirational tale of letting go, moving on, and finding a better life by realizing how to reconcile your past. Or something. Aside from the awesome nugget about "Tea has no sins", the phrase "You must face your own fear" gets invoked from time to time. Those fears are: the fear of making tea, of letting a crappy curse run your life, of letting your daughter grow up, of sacrificing true love for pride, and maybe of getting killed in Taiwan because you happened to annoy some Male Golden Tea-addled punk who was after your Female Golden Tea. These conflicts and personal pains come to head in a grand head-to-head tea battle between three participants, where the characters imagine themselves in ceremonial garb as they prepare to make the tea of a lifetime. Of course, that's when they learn all their lessons and the world finally makes sense. At least for the characters. For the audience, "sense" is a relative term that takes a hike as soon as Tea Fight begins. The Klingon language may be more decipherable than this film.

But hey, that's okay, because Tea Fight is a strange and special Asian movie that can still entertain - if perhaps for the wrong reasons. It's got manga-like storytelling, good production values, and photogenic actors who know how to fill up the screen. And, if the above doesn't convince you of the worthiness of Tea Fight, then get a load of this: the film also stars Eric Tsang as an immortal Tea God! Tsang occasionally shows up to narrate the action, or to guide the characters on their way - which is kind of needless, since the film is driven by coincidence and contrivance. Still, Tsang's commanding presence forces everyone around him into submission. At one point, Kei is about to get bamboozled by a young punk when Tsang drives up in a taxi - and then the young punk runs away in fear! It would only be slightly more bizarre if the actor shrieked, "Holy crap, it's Eric Tsang!" before beating his hasty retreat. That line of dialogue would probably have destroyed any suspension of disbelief, but the film does that to itself very, very early on. Tea Fight is creative but bizarre, and is told in such a low key, irony-free way that it proves oddly enjoyable, if not actually that good. Just don't take it seriously. You probably couldn't if you tried. (Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong Summer International Film Festival, 2008)


DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Mei Ah Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin and Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

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