It happened under the radar, but Pu’er and the surrounding Yunnan region have made China one of the world leaders in boutique coffee harvesting. Coffee roasting and distribution is still an important industry in Trieste, Italy, so the kind bean somewhat logically supplies common ground for the first ever Chinese-Italian co-production. So how does that relate to Antwerp? Maybe if they drank more coffee there, they would have the energy to find a job, instead of resorting to looting during riots. Regardless, these three not-really-connected stories are like Babel, but with more caffeine. Coffee plays an important role in the lives of all three protagonists in Cristiano Bortone’s Coffee (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.
Hamed is a naturalized Belgian pawnbroker, who treats all his customers with unprofitable compassion. Alas, the ugly Occupy-style mob could care less as it tears through the urban center of Antwerp. Hamed is understandably distressed to find his shop has been completely looted, including the antique coffee pot that has been in his family for generations. However, the unemployable Vincent left behind his wallet. The inevitable confrontation will not go well for anyone.
Meanwhile, Renzo and his pregnant girlfriend Gaia move to Trieste, hoping to find specialized employment in the coffee industry. Although is buddy fixes him up with a warehouse job, Renzo soon falls in with the wrong crowd, particularly Enrico, who hatches a ridiculous scheme to steal a shipment of ultra-exclusive beans.
That exotic coffee originally hailed from Yunnan, as did Ren Fei. He has since found corporate success in Beijing, especially after his engagement to the chairman’s daughter. After years in the capitol, Ren Fei must now return to assure the Pu’er factory quickly returns to production after a minor accident. Rather inconveniently, he discovers the facility is a ticking time bomb that could potentially contaminate the whole valley if more extensive repairs are not made. He has his orders, bur his conscience is pricked by A Fang, an artist and boutique coffee entrepreneur, who might just be his long-lost childhood friend.
By far, the best strands of Coffee are those set in Yunnan, which are wistfully lyrical. The Antwerp segments also have a gritty, naturalistic intensity to them. Rather oddly, Bortone’s Italian sequences are the weakest of the film, largely because Renzoi and Gaia are dull, uninvolving characters, but the stupidity of the would-be caper does not help either.
Hichem Yacoubi is terrific as Hamed, in a harrowingly intense kind of way. Zhuo Tan truly lights up the screen as A Fang, developing some sweetly chaste chemistry with Lu Fangsheng’s Ren Fei. Alas, Dario Aita and company in Trieste just don’t measure up to their Antwerp and Pu’er colleagues.
On the plus side, the production values are first-rate. Teho Teardo’s score is distinctively melancholy, while maintaining a buoyantly propulsive mid-tempo. Likewise, cinematographer Vladan Radovic gives it all a lush, sparkling look, fully capitalizing on the cinematic potential of Pu’er’s verdant vistas. As a work of cinema, it is definitely inconsistent, but there is enough good stuff to leave viewers craving a rich cup of Joe. Recommended on balance, Coffee opens tomorrow (2/9) in LA, at the Laemmle Royal.