Han Chang and Nina Mélo in "Black Tea"

‘Black Tea’ Struggles to Capture Afro-Chinese Romance and Diaspora

Abderrahmane Sissako’s latest, which debuted at the Berlin Film Festival, unfortunately doesn't quite hit the mark

Han Chang and Nina Mélo in "Black Tea"

Courtesy of Olivier Marceny / Cinéfrance Studios / Archipel 35 / Dune Vision

From Cannes to the Academy Awards, Malian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako made a global impact with his 2014 drama Timbuktu, based on the story of a couple being stoned to death by religious extremists in Mali. While this context may be unnecessary to understand Sissako’s latest—his first film in 10 years, the China-set drama Black Tea—his success in extrapolating a dynamic political portrait from real-life tragedy in his home country further illuminates some of his failings in depicting the nuances of lived realities when he works in a wildly different setting: Guangzhou’s African diaspora. Black Tea has unique stylistic strengths unto itself, but its aesthetic choices also yield political implications (intentionally or otherwise) that can’t help but flatten the dimensions of its cross-cultural romance, while the filmmaker had succeeded in his dynamic explorations in other geographic contexts.

The film, which played in competition at the recently-concluded Berlin Film Festival—it took home no prizes and remains undistributed—sees Nina Mélo playing Aya, a woman who finds the strength to leave her disloyal husband at the altar, and flee Côte d'Ivoire for East Asia. This prologue feels vital and visceral. As multiple couples show up to be officially wed, the hot and crowded courthouse becomes a place of reflection for Aya. Most of them seem happy, while she sits there begrudgingly, glancing over at a young African woman and her older Chinese husband-to-be smiling giddily at one another. Perhaps this is what gives her the idea to leave for China, though all we can do is wonder; the next time we see her, she’s already well-settled in Guangzhou, where she eventually grows close to her older employer, Cai (Chang Han), at the tea parlor where she works.

Dubbed “Little Africa,” Guangzhou in Guangdong province is home to Asia’s largest African diaspora, with migrants hailing from all corners of the continent. However, the version of Guangzhou depicted in Black Tea has a particularly stage-like quality, with warm lighting illuminating neat spaces that the camera captures through careful and unobtrusive compositions. The streets feel like wide-open sets on a studio backlot when Aya walks them, as she visits her African acquaintances at the local hair salon, Cai and his son Li-Ben (Michael Chang) at her place of employ, and her Chinese best friend, Mei (Yu Pei-Jen), who sells suitcases across the street.

Two women sit together, grinning and eating from large bowls with chopsticks.

The streets of Guangzhou as told by "Black Tea" hold a dreamy, stage-like quality.

Courtesy of Olivier Marceny / Cinéfrance Studios / Archipel 35 / Dune Vision

There’s a dreamlike quality to these locations, though it yields equally dreamlike confusion. When we first meet Aya in China, years have presumably gone by. She’s well-adjusted, speaks perfect Mandarin, and is known to most shopkeepers in her neighborhood, but as the camera finds her in each of these new spaces, the physical relationship between them is never quite clear. Guangzhou seems to be an ideal paradise for Aya; she floats from place to place with a sense of uninhibited comfort, though this can’t help but translate as occasional confusion for the viewer, for whom making sense of her neighborhood becomes a puzzle-solving task.

This confusion thankfully subsides when the movie takes us far away from Guangzhou’s pristine, spacious alleys—a significant departure from the real Guangzhou—and into the warmly lit basement of Cai’s tea parlor, where he teaches Aya various pouring methods and steeping ceremonies. They discuss the time and care it takes to prepare the perfect cup as though they were speaking in code, hinting at some withheld longing they seem to feel. Cai has a gentle handsomeness about him, but his kindly demeanor also conceals an unsavory past, which he slowly reveals to Aya once she wins his trust.

Standing in a tea field, a woman shows a man something in her hand. Both people are smiling.

Cai (Han Chang) and Aya (Nina Mélo) share a fondness for tea.

Courtesy of Olivier Marceny / Cinéfrance Studios / Archipel 35 / Dune Vision

The problem with these scenes, however, is that the steamy atmosphere is seldom matched by on-screen chemistry, whether between the actors, or between the characters and their passions. They feel distant not only from one another, but from the tea about which they wax poetic, and speak so romantically. Two years ago, Kogonada’s Asian American sci-fi drama After Yang similarly centered tea in key scenes, but approached its preparation as a sensory experience. Cai and Aya discuss tea this way too, but Sissako’s camera rarely embodies the intoxication of which they speak. Their romance feels merely ceremonial, rather than their little ceremonies being imbued with sensuous romance. It’s all a bit robotic.

This flattening of a courtship that ought to feel exuberant also mirrors the movie’s larger problem of political optics: it sands down what ought to be discomforting. There’s no tension—racial, cultural, or economic—in the film’s vision of Guangzhou, and no sense that its people live shoulder-to-shoulder, or that they live at all, when the camera isn’t trained on them. The real Guangzhou is clustered and concentrated, beating with numerous cultural identities forced to be fluid and miscible all at once. In other words, it’s a diaspora. In contrast, Aya’s neighborhood in Black Tea has a storybook quality. Its minor, jovial encounters are performed with a cadence befitting Broadway parody, which prevents its Chinese and African residents from even recognizing each other as such, let alone experiencing racial animus, as though its vision of this distinctly racial story were magically post-racial (or worse yet, color-blind).

A Black woman and a Chinese woman meet eyes from a distance. Both are wearing the same sleeveless red dress.

Sissako's tale about racial and communal tensions is presented through a storybook-like quality.

Courtesy of Olivier Marceny / Cinéfrance Studios / Archipel 35 / Dune Vision

In theory, a utopian vision would make for an intriguing cinematic presentation, though this isn’t what Sissako is going for. Stray dialogue and occasional suspicious glances hint at lingering communal tensions, but only in the moments these things are highlighted or emphasized. Otherwise, minor and major characters have but one function at a time — usually, to create a happy-go-lucky foundation to launch a star-crossed romance that never manages to leave the stratosphere. When virulent racism does finally enter the movie’s purview, it’s easily and frictionlessly resolved.

Realism and cinematic romance needn’t go hand-in-hand. However, in robbing a story such as this of any realistic hues, Black Tea ends up collapsing its own story of people finding each other across oceans and cultures, making it feel hopelessly small. Where Sissako once presented a meticulous, multifaceted vision of intersecting cultural forces, here, he depicts only the surface of an idea, varnished to the point of nausea, and stripped of character in the process.

Published on February 28, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter