High style meets an interesting but flawed script in Zhang Yuan’s “Green Tea,” a glossy take on male-female relationships with two of China’s biggest stars going head to head. Fans of Mainland hunk Jiang Wen and the elfin, all-eyes Zhao Wei (“Shaolin Soccer,” “So Close”) won’t require any further recommendation for what is basically a two-handed demo of screen chemistry, and fests which don’t require Chinese fare to be either political or “indie”-flavored should certainly give this a spin, triggering some niche business outside East Asia. Pic preemed in China in mid-August and went wider the following month.
Following his much under-rated “I Love You,” “Green Tea” shows Zhang continuing to focus on modern relationships in fast-changing China, though his treatment here is much slicker and more visually self-aware, largely thanks to pristine work by lensmeister Christopher Doyle.
Based on a short story by little-known femme writer Jin Renshun, who also co-wrote the script, pic was shot in the summer of 2002 and waited a year for release even at home. (Zhang already has another movie in the can.)
Wu Fang (Zhao), a smart but bookish post-grad student, consults tea leaves whenever she meets a guy for the first time. Thus, when she has a blind date with raffish Chen Mingliang (Jiang), she checks her tea leaves. But, he scoffs at her ritual and says he already knows all he needs to about women.
Wu initially walks out on him but he subsequently charms her into further meetings, during which they slowly discover a middle ground between her seriousness and his attempts to impress. From the get-go, Zhao and Jiang establish a chemistry that sustains the movie even in its weaker moments, playing off against each other with sly looks and emotional parrying.
Pic develops an affecting edge half-an-hour in during an extended conversation in which Wu, who always extrapolates her feelings — and maybe more — into the third person (“I have a friend who…”), drifts off into a reverie. However, she still won’t allow him to cross the invisible border between being a friend and a lover.
Chen, by now desperate to prove himself, accepts a friend’s advice and makes boyish eyes at a hotel bar pianist who’s rumored to be a pushover.
Though longhaired, glamorously dressed and easygoing, Langlang (also Zhao) turns out to be the spitting image of Wu, even though she vigorously denies that she’s the same woman.
Mainland cinema already has a small sub-genre of such movies (Lou Ye’s “Suzhou River,” Lu Xuechang’s “A Lingering Face”), though “Green Tea” doesn’t spend time on the mechanics of solving the mystery. Whether the same dame or not, Wu and Langlang are archetypal flipsides of modern womanhood — and as such, the film becomes more about Chen’s ability as a man to reconcile the two rather than choose between them.
It’s in the final furlong that the script stumbles. When Chen asks Langlang to accompany him to a gathering and rep the absent Wu, the scene looks set for some clever melding of the two characters. Instead, both the dialogue and Zhang’s direction crumble, with an ending that’s disappointingly superficial.
Doyle’s lensing is crisp and smart, with strong colors and neat compositions mirroring Wu’s character. Such a style would have fitted the film as a whole, but for the scenes with Langlang the look rather obviously goes for a roving camera, diffused lighting and softer tones, which becomes more a distraction than anything else. As result, and despite Zhao’s varied playing, Langlang never emerges as a comparable female character.
Zhao is especially good in the Wu role, turning her from a potential caricature (glasses, upswept hair, tightly wrapped) into a flesh-and-blood character in need of a man who’ll genuinely care for her. Jiang, too, is good at showing the cracks behind his buccaneering front, slightly recalling his bruised macho turn in Zhang Yimou’s Beijing comedy “Keep Cool.” For students of ocular acting, both Zhao and Jiang provide a field day.
Other roles are purely decorative, with Zhang himself taking a recurring, only briefly glimpsed role as Wu’s mentor. Technical credits are of a high order throughout, especially the detailed sound design.