Aworthy entry in Dutch documentarian Frank Scheffer’s collection of films about modern composers (including Elliot Carter, John Cage and Frank Zappa), “Tea” is about Chinese composer Tan Dun and the creation of his beverage-titled opera. Chinese landscapes, ritual Japanese tea ceremonies, shadow puppet plays, formal staged performances and abstract swirls of color share equally in Scheffer’s eclectic system of visual notation. Though pic occasionally suffers from too much verbal explication, Scheffer again demonstrates his uncanny ability to visualize otherwise hidden, internal musical structures. Fests and musical venues should welcome pic’s quasi-experimental boldness, well-suited to Tan Dun’s cross-cultural fusion fare.
Tan Dun includes many unusual “organic” instruments in his orchestra. The sight of musicians splashing water, crumpling pieces of paper and knocking rocks together offsets the usual master shots of violin bows. Scheffer counterpoints the music’s aggressive, Western linearity with more meditative, oriental strains. But it is through fragmented views of the opera performance itself, through the varied, extreme angles dramatizing the murmuring of the chorus or the interplay of a duet, that Scheffer’s docu shines, a rare opera film driven by musical rather than narrative dynamics.