Tea Flicks: Red Cliff

The epic Chinese historial action movie Red Cliff (赤壁) arrived in theatres here in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago (nearly 18 months after premiering in China). Famed Hong Kong director John Woo's first Chinese movie since 1992 and, at $80 million, the most expensive Asian movie ever made, it's packed with martial arts; gory combat; larger-than-life buddy-heroes; top stars from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the mainland; sly winks at some of the most famous scenes from Woo's earlier films; and - less predictably - lots of tea-drinking!

It turns out the Xiao Qiao character, played by Taiwanese model-turned-actress Lin Zhi Ling (pictured here), is quite expert at grinding cake tea into powder and whisking it up in a cha wan. (Close scrutiny of the credits reveals that the actress was trained by a tea expert.) Late in the movie, when she makes tea for arch-villain Cao Cao (veteran actor Zhang Feng Yi), we aren't sure if it's her tea or her lecture on brewing technique, covering such details as water and tea tools, that gives Cao Cao a terrible headache. In any case, he's indisposed long enough to give Xiao Qiao's husband Zhou Yu (mega-star Liang Chao Wei) enough of a military advantage to defeat Cao Cao.

I saw the Western version of Red Cliff, trimmed down to a mere 2.5 hours. The Asian release is in two parts totaling 4 hours or so, and probably contains even more tea scenes.

Many will watch Red Cliff because they're fans of John Woo. Others will enjoy the stunning scenery, epic battle scenes, historical narrative, host of charismatic stars, and sophistication of contemporary Chinese filmmaking. However, for some of us tea is the draw. It's gratifying to see a movie that's as serious about the tea history of 1,800 years ago as it is about the military history, and to watch a grand, complex plot - and the course of history - turn on a timely lecture about how to brew a good cup of tea.