Black Tea: a labyrinthine multicultural love story

Director Abderrahmane Sissako follows up his 2014 feature Timbuku with a diffuse story of a woman who flees the Ivory Coast for a new life in China that is weighed down by too many tangents.

29 February 2024

By Nick James

Nina Melo and Chang Han as Aya and Cai in Black Tea (2024)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival

In the opening scenes of Black Tea, Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s first feature in ten years, an ant is swept to its demise from the white silk of a wedding dress. This act has a metaphorical meaning that only becomes clear much later. The dress belongs to Aya (Nina Mélo), one of the imminent brides in an African mass wedding room, but neither she nor her groom want to be there, and after the ant hits the floor, the film itself doesn’t linger. Financed from three continents, with itchy feet and distances to cover, Black Tea falls into its slippery exoticism so quickly that it never confirms if the interweaving stories that follow occur before or after the wedding, or indeed are just part of a dream.

After we see Aya flee the Ivory Coast wedding, the environment changes to that of a Chinese shopping mall, albeit one frequented by Africans. Sporting a different, super-stylish hairdo, Aya is in the Southern Chinese port of Guangzhou’s so called ‘Chocolate City’, where Africans come to buy goods they can re-sell at home (or latterly, to provide cheap labour to a country whose population is ageing). In these early sequences, set amid a warren of trading outlets, African and Chinese co-workers and neighbours come together in a utopian vision of easy co-existence, mutual fascination and gossip mongering. Speaking Mandarin fluently, Aya is taken on as a trainee by divorced gourmet tea trader Wong Cai (Chang Han), whose connoisseur status is underlined by his immaculately neat store and apartment. Cai’s teaching of the finer points of his business leads to a burgeoning romance made subtly steamy by splendid performances from both actors and Sissako the cinephile’s burning need to pay tribute to Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou, Stanley Kwan et al (with a modicum of Pedro Costa’s influence too). Cai gives Aya the nickname Black Tea. You could call this section In the Mood for Oolong.

Black Tea (2024)

It all sounds straightforward, but that simple plot line gets besieged by so many crossing tangents it eventually devolves into a diffuse affair of multicultural romance and post-marital anguish. Cai’s ex-wife Ying (Wu Ke-Xi) is a vigilant censorious presence, their son, Li-Ben (Michael Chang), who also works at the tea outlet, flirts with Wen (Huang Wei), the lower-class young girl selling wheelie suitcases in the outlet opposite. What caused Cai and Ying’s divorce was that Cai had a daughter by another African lover, a Cape Verde islander, who eventually returned home (it is almost impossible for African immigrants to remain legally in China for long). Cai is so keen to see his daughter there that he dreams of a blissful reunion, a dream he wakes from as he plans a visit we’re never sure he takes. Add to these the tendency that Sissako never knew a minor character anecdote he wouldn’t pause to explore and you feel you’re lost in a labyrinthine script perhaps serving too many interested parties.

Adding to that deliberately meandering feeling is the multi-layered imagery of the African quarter itself, produced by cinematographer Aymerick Pilarski on sets in Taiwan. A claustrophobic patina of reflections and transparencies glosses every shot, producing less the kind of pop charm that enlivens Chungking Express (1994), more an atmospheric instability that occasionally wanders into bleary digital flatness. One gets that the sense of space is meant to be fractured, perhaps reflecting a possible fugue state in Aya, but it does add to the confusion.

As evidenced by Bamako (2006), Sissako’s masterpiece about Africa and international law, and Timbuktu (2014), his parable about a village invaded by Islamic fundamentalists, the director is usually fearless in his politics. Here, however, China’s disdainful use of Africans is mostly treated with kid gloves, until a late scene of blatant racism arrives. It includes mention of mainland China’s expansionist Silk Road policy that has led so many African countries into collaboration: hence the black worker ant swatted from the white silk road of the dress. That on-the-nose metaphor indicates the clumsy variance of tone that follows. However refreshing it is to see a film in which success is not based on the American Dream but rather on finding a new identity in another dominant culture, the fingerprints of incoherence – and perhaps compromise – are sadly all over Black Tea’s shop windows.

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