Masking a very unconventional movie under a totally conventional title, idiosyncratic helmer Katsuhito Ishii partly corrals his wayward talent in “The Taste of Tea,” an ambitious, imaginative but very uneven portrait of a discreetly weird community. Tightening by half an hour could help build this a cult rep through festival showings, leading to some niche distribution and ancillary.
Helmer Ishii, best known for his out-there debut, “Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl” (1999), and recently for the animation sequence in “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” follows the Haruno family who live in a hilly region just outside Tokyo, with dad Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura) commuting to his hypnosis practice in the city. Wife Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) works at home on an animation project that she hopes will re-establish her after a spell raising two kids. Said children are son Hajime (Takahiro Sato), in his early teens, and younger sister Sachiko (Maya Banno), an over-imaginative 6-year-old.
Tiny Sachiko is convinced she’s being observed by a giant double of herself who occasionally looms up like Jack’s beanstalk; she is equally convinced she can get rid of it if she performs a certain move on a horizontal bar. (Don’t even ask.) Shy Hajime is experiencing his first crushes on girls, and falls hard and breathlessly for a leggy beauty in his class, Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya). Nuttiest of all is wild-eyed grandpa Akira (Tatsuya Gasyuin), who carries a tuning fork everywhere to hone his vocal pitch and fancies himself as some kind of mime artist, acting out the stances of Yoshiko’s cartoon heroes.
Set amid traditional Japanese imagery such as cherry blossoms, paddy fields and long days lounging around in the heat, pic lays on the weirdness discreetly in the early going. There’s no sense of hurry, and everything is beautifully lensed in picturesque settings.
But when Yoshiko’s brother, Ayano (cult actor Tadanobu Asano, an Ishii regular), who’s visiting from the big city, calmly regales Hajime with a scatological fairytale, the viewer realizes this is some mixed-up family beneath the placid surface. And when Ayano subsequently has a strange run-in with a crazy baseball player practicing by a river, it’s also clear this is going to be a movie with no boundaries to its imagination.
However, after laying out his various story strands, Ishii shows no interest in developing them in any co-ordinated — or even balanced — style. A subplot about Ayano and a former g.f. (Tomoko Nakajima) hardly gets off the starting block; the father, Nobuo, remains a vague figure in search of a personality; and even Yoshiko, sitting at either her animation work desk or at dinner, is hazily drawn at best. When the film tries to draw the family threads together at the end for a heartwarming finale, there’s no real emotional wallop.
Though his budget is much bigger this time out, and technically everything is slicker, Ishii still shows the same vexing randomness as in “Sharkskin Man” and the messy “Party 7.” Inspired moments of silliness or imagination (an employee beating up her noxious boss, Sachiko’s final moment of glory) rub shoulders with overplayed sequences, such as one involving a mime whom Ayano meets by the river and brings home. And several characters (a gang of bikers in Almodovar-colored duds, two guys dressed like a superhero) seem like leftovers from Ishii’s previous two movies who’ve been tossed in the pot for background color.
Such bumpy construction makes “Tea” a slow brew at almost two-and-a-half hours, and one whose final taste lacks body. Ishii’s restless imagination remains rooted in manga, and the characters here, though all charmingly played, remain two-dimensional.
Effects work is very smooth, in a deliberately picture-book, cut-out style.