Saturday, April 16, 2011

Viz Benefit Screening: The Taste of Tea

Dad is a hypnotist. Mom is an animator. You would expect their family to be a bit eccentric and they are, but only in the way all families are crazy. At least they live amidst the tranquility of nature in Tochigi, a prefecture hit particularly hard by the recent earthquake. Nothing so dramatic befalls the Haruno family (yet), except for the real life happening in Katsuhito Ishii’s The Taste of Tea (trailer here), which screens tomorrow at the Viz Theater in San Francisco as their next special benefit for Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief.

As a young boy, Sachiko Haruno’s uncle Ayano was haunted by the ghost of a dead yakuza. The old gangster had a good reason that we need not get into here. This story has personal significance for his niece, because she too is shadowed by a vision of sorts. Actually, it is a giant manifestation of her own likeness. Based on his dubious experiences, she sets out to exercise other self through a gymnastic feat hitherto beyond her capabilities. Her older brother Hajime also has his sights set on a seemingly unattainable goal: the pretty new girl in his class. At least he has something to work with. She has joined the school’s go club.

There are moments of magical realism in Tea, as well as plenty terrestrial weirdness. Yet, it is grounded in its family drama. Indeed, the film’s wistful vibe is more closely akin to Kore-eda’s masterful Still Walking than a Taskashi Miike mind-flossing. The parents might have cool gigs, but the Haruno family all feel like real people, precisely because of their idiosyncrasies, even including Grandpa, who is definitely one strange cat.

Frankly, Tea ought to end with a wonderfully beautiful scene, appropriately involving animation (of the flip book variety) late in the film. It is legitimately touching, yet rendered as lightly as a feather. However, Tea takes one final cosmic trip that feels a bit anti-climatic. Still, it hardly matters. It does not detract from the depth of the scene in question or the film’s overall sweetness.

Young Maya Banno is quite engaging as Sister Sachiko, serving as our primary POV throughout the film. Takahiro Sato is more than a bit sullen as Brother Hajime, but one supposes most boys are at that tweener age. Though often understated to the point of seemingly needing a shot of adrenaline (or at least a venti Starbucks drip), Tadanobu Asano is also still oddly effective as Uncle Ayano.

Tea is a film of endearing charm a vivid sense of place, capitalizing on the striking open vistas of Tochigi. Indeed, the film takes on further elegiac meaning in light of recent events. Not to lay it on too thickly, but there are a number of sweet kids like Sachiko in the prefecture having a hard time of it now. (Of course, the message is lost on our president, who has yet to make a meaningful address on the Japanese catastrophes or announce a comprehensive plan of assistance.) Once again, America’s response is up to us as private citizens. You can support the Red Cross’ efforts in Japan here and contribute to the Japan Society’s relief fund here. For those in San Francisco, you can also help by going to a great movie this Sunday (4/17) when the Viz Theater screens Tea, with one hundred percent of the proceeds going to Japanese disaster relief.