The Taste Of Tea is a beautiful, touching and funny story of a family. To steal slightly from the old marketing blurb for Dario Argento's "Suspiria", the only thing more uplifting than the first two hours of this movie, is the last twenty minutes. I'm tempted to just end the review there as the movie defies a straight narrative description and I don't want to ruin too many of the lovely little surprises and moments packed into it.
Perhaps I'll start with the characters...Parents Yoshiko and Nobuo are a bit wrapped up in their own jobs in the beginning of the film - Yoshiko is returning to work as an animator after a long absence and Nobuo seems to be elsewhere most of the time; perhaps in the dream worlds he pulls out from the patients he hypnotizes in his practice. Teenage Hajime is in the throws of being a teenage boy and has just been crushed by the departure of a girl, even though he never even talked to her. Little Sachiko is a quiet, pretty girl who is constantly being watched by her own huge head. And Grandpa observes them all - while also providing guidance for Yoshiko, practicing his dance moves for an upcoming recording session and tormenting Sachiko when she sits on the stoop. There's also Yoshiko's brother Ayano (played by Tadanobu Asano) who seems to be floating through life and constantly at the house.
They all have their "quirks" - whether it's through their actions (Yoshiko's recreation of body and facial movements to get her animation right; the ridiculously catchy song and dance about mountains) or the manifestations of their inner thoughts (a train popping out of Hajime's forehead as he watches that first girl leave; Sachiko's huge twin head). But as goofy as the film gets, these are not manufactured quirks for the sake of laughs. These feel like real fully fleshed out people who simply see the world from their own slant. The film is long (2 hours and 20 minutes), but it flies by - this is quality time you get to spend with these folks. Thing is, they don't seem to know it. Sure they spend time with each other at dinner or playing Go, but they don't appear to be sharing much of their lives with each other.
Director Katsuhito Ishii mixes in some beautiful shots of the natural surroundings and this helps get across what was, for me, the theme of the movie: Through all the hub-bub that life has to offer (and its huge range of emotions), we'll be happier if we take some time to savour those moments of small happiness and beauty. Even if it just means enjoying the taste of tea.
And speaking of ridiculously catchy songs about mountains, do yourself a favour and watch this clip from the film. But be careful - it could melt your brain after repeated viewings.