The Plot: The Taste of Tea tells the story of a family unit. Father, mother, grandfather, uncle, elder son and youngest daughter. Each has their own unique dysfunctions and characteristics. Mother is a struggling artist who uses her father to do strange poses for her. Grandfather is a bit deranged and is often blurting out nonsense or singing. Father is a work-a-holic who likes to settle down at the end of the day and play a game called Go with his son, whilst being perfectly fine with all of this craziness going on around him. Uncle (Tadanobu Asano, Ichi the Killer, Party 7, Electric Dragon 80000 V.,) is a sound mixer who likes to wander around town and run into strange characters for the adventure of it. He tells wild stories to the kids and seems to be saddened by his loner position. The son is in a chase for love, as the film begins with his previous crush having left him via train and moving on to another city. When a new girl joins their class however, his heart may have mended as he attempts to woo her. The youngest daughter is perhaps most interesting of all, as she wanders along (sometimes with her uncle, sometimes alone) getting into her own adventures – with her giant version of herself following along. That’s right, she has a giant sized version of herself that only she can see that follows her everywhere she goes. Will she be able to get rid of this phantom, and if she does, does that mean she ceases to exist as well?

The Review: Ever had one of those filmmakers who you regarded as someone visionary, but for whatever reason the rest of the world simply hasn’t caught on? Personally, I have a few of them I could list. Toshiaki Toyoda is one, who despite making four absolutely brilliant and life-altering films, hasn’t really gained the notoriety he most certainly deserves. Katsuhito Ishii is another filmmaker in the same boat and the director responsible for our film today. Although Ishii has delivered a couple of cult classics, they are flicks that really could be bigger than they are. Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl really blew me away those many years ago when I first saw it and it introduced me to Tadanobu Asano. Then came Party 7, a strange blitzkrieg of comedy and strange manga/anime influences. These two early works were like having speed injected directly into your heart. Fast paced, no frills rock and roll fun capitured on celluloid. Ishii could continue directing films such as these for the rest of his days and I would die a happy man. However, with The Taste of Tea he takes his career into different waters. In much the same way Takashi Miike shocked audiences when delivering a family film with Happiness of the Katakuris, Ishii steps up and delivers his own unique take on the family picture. The Taste of Tea is a stylish, strange and entirely different sort of family-based drama; unlike anything you have ever seen.

Episodic in nature, it’s hard to pinpoint a three or four act structure in the film. Truthfully, it’s a feature that simply kind of wanders along at its own pace and beat without too much focus on what we might consider “structure”. This isn’t a bad thing however, not unless you let it bother you, Taste of Tea begins to craft its own style and intentions throughout the course of the film. Ishii’s pace and style is something that has always seemed a bit out of this world, going back to Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, a film that had a tempo all to its own. Stopping and going at warp speed, it’s just part of what makes the director so unique. Clocking in at roughly two and a half hours and with nary a gun-toting badguy in sight, The Taste of Tea is one simply for the patient members of the audience willing to sit through the film to hear what Ishii has to say. What exactly does he have to say? Well, that’s one that is going to be up for interpretation. By and large the film follows a very straight forward narrative, delivering the stories that these characters collect along their way – but there are those times when the film seems to veer off into left field. Such as the story with the daughter and her seeing a giant version of herself, a storyline with an absolutely EPIC climax. What the sequence means, don’t worry I won’t spoil it, at the end of the day I’m really not sure but it makes for an incredibly visual bit of storytelling.

An unrepentant art-film, The Taste of Tea of course will not wet all appetites. Katsuhito Ishii’s entire film library can be spoke of in the exact same manner, and I think fans of his previous films are likely big enough film-fans that they’ll know how to absorb and appreciate the film. In the words of Katsuhito Ishii “It’s easy to understand, and then it’s not”. The Taste of Tea won’t leave you breathless like some of Ishii’s work has in the past, but it remains a highly memorable and entertaining coming-of-age film. Despite not seeming to carry that bizarre anime/manga influence, you will be surprised at how Ishii is able to pack in and execute some style and panache within the film. There’s also his dark humor that once again gives the film real life when it needs it. The one scene that really has to be mentioned takes place with the Dad character’s brother (who doesn’t live in the house or get too heavily involved in the main storyline) who works as a manga artist and is actually quite popular for it. When his assistant, a very cute young woman, reminds him that she is indeed off the next day and that the last time he called on an off-day her husband got mad he waits until she out of the room and nonchalantly calls her husband and tells him simply “your wife is having an affair” before hanging up and immediately going back to his work. The way in which he does this without so much as letting out a whimper of anger or upset is funny enough, but within moments his assistant comes walking back in… what follows is about as massive a beatdown as any film has ever presented. He’s caught in a rear-naked choke, followed by a muay-thai clinch with knees to his sternum, stomps to the head and a couple of jump kicks as he tries to regain his footing. Absolutely bizarre and out of nowhere, the films greatest moments come in this strange little sequences.

Maybe not for all tastes, but for those of us who can take the time with the film it turns out not only a growth in artistry from Ishii’s career but also a very entertaining film. I’m giving it a four out of five, although the pacing issues nearly took it down to a three – I think ultimately the editing might have been the only fault the film had, but if you can get past it and accept it for what it is you’ll find a great film from a terrific director.