It would be one of those impossible tasks to comment upon and decipher all the culture aspects of tea within Hong Kong cinema as after all its presence is so symbolic and natural it is most often ignored. Tea is a way of life in Hong Kong and it would be impossible for it not to appear either purposefully or incidentally on the wide screen.
However I thought I would share some of my observations. But firstly it might be wise to provide a very brief introduction to the history of Hong Kong Cinema.
Hong Kong cinema is the third largest motion picture industry in the world (after Indian cinema and Hollywood) and second largest exporter. Despite an industry crisis starting in the mid-1990s and Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in July 1997, Hong Kong film has retained much of its distinctive identity and continues to play a prominent part on the world cinema stage. Having little or no direct government support, it is a thoroughly commercial, focusing on crowd-pleasing genres like comedy and action, and relying heavily on formulas, sequels and remakes. Starting off its history around 1909 and picking up momentum with the advent of sound it reached its boom in the mid 1980s with hard hitting films like John Woos’ The Killer that preceded his internationally acclaimed Hard Boiled which propelled actors such as Chow Yun Fat into the limelight. Equally successful during this time was the proclivity for the formula of comedy action films, often involving martial arts, raising the status of the likes of Jackie Chan in the Police Story series.
Today its healthy mix of comedy, action, crime and martial arts attracts cult status and big audiences world wide.
The following themes involving tea emerge from this genre of cinema, as observed.
- Tea as a vehicle for representing social change
- Tea as a vehicle for transcending barriers
- Tea as a symbol for idealized culture
In one of my all time favourite films starring Lam Ching Ying, Mr Vampire (1985), that ticks all the boxes of the comedy/action/martial arts formula, a scene whereby the exorcist and his student enter a westernised tea house reveals the role of tea as representative of social change. In this scene the customers are drinking tea in the English tradition with teapot and handled cups and saucers. This isn’t that unusual as the introduction of such practice among the Chinese elite is something that has perhaps been perpetuated since the British colonial expansion in the 1890s. However in regard to commenting in cinema on social change it is what happens before this scene that is important. Prior to entering the tea house the main characters converse with a traditional fish merchant on the street. There is stark contrast with the old traditions and new traditions between these two scenes, such that, as throughout the film, new beliefs and practices are constantly being challenged by old traditional attitudes. Tea becomes one of these vehicles in which discarded old beliefs and superstition are constantly being re-appraised against modern attitudes.
Early on the 1992 film New Dragon Gate Inn, staring Maggie Cheung as the temptress Jade, tea is seen as a mechanism of transcending social barriers. Within 37 minutes of the film the femme fatale character offers a bowl of tea to a newly arrived guest. Nothing unusual or special about this you may think, however the acceptance of the tea by the guest almost allows her to exploit his vulnerability and soon he is under her spell, so much so that one may even retrospectively suppose the tea may have been drugged. There is nothing to suggest this is the case in the film but the power of accepting the hospitality of tea is here suggesting the power of tea to break down barriers between individuals to extent that this in itself can be exploited for ill means.
In the tea house scene in Hard Boiled (1992) the calm civil atmosphere erupts into a chaotic shootout with the tea kettle filled with boiling water featuring heavily as an improvised weapon of choice. Here tea represents society and social norms, whereby the boiling kettle signifies the boiling over of inherent tensions between the tea house clients. I feel John Woo utilises the tea house atmosphere to signify the inherent tensions that exist within society, between the criminal and legal that are all framed and governed by social norms but have the potential to erupt into chaos. The serenity of the idealized culture of the tea house that is easily unsettled by the ensuing violence suggests both the potential and fragility of social harmony. Here tea culture is both normalising and equalising. However, possibly, in perceived anti-confucianist rhetoric John Woo almost states that the harmony achieved by social conventions of tea culture is not immune to impermanence. As exposed in my previous post, it reminds me of the violent act at the end of Sen No Rikyu’s final tea ceremony where the smashing of the tea bowl signifies the final act of dissolution of order and convention. Interestingly enough this scene from Hard Boiled is also a homage to the 1974 film Teahouse that features an explosive violent fight scene between rival triads. Needless to say all the teaware is dramatically broken!
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), although not exclusively a Hong Kong film production, co-produced with Hong Kong film company EDKO as well as People’s Republic of China CFGC (China Film Co-Production Corporation), incorporates strong Hong Kong film genre formula. In a scene the Taoist master Li Mu Bai refuses tea offered to him in preference for human contact before narrating a monologue on the impermanence of all things. Again, I feel here tea once again symbolises convention and order and social norms that is subverted and usurped by Taoist anti-confucianist rhetoric.
There are many films I have not mentioned and many I would love to watch again and spot the deeper meanings and presence of tea (I can see an epic movie marathon looming!!). The key point is Hong Kong has been culturally a border between old and new China, and its tea culture reflects this in a way that when we view it through the lens of Cinema we see rich metaphors of tea. Tea culture is not just enfranchised in the formal tea traditions and new age practices that we see so often highlighted on the internet or YouTube, but also in the everyday drinking practices and norms of society. It language is so rich that it become almost invisible despite the power it has to lubricate, influence and modulate subtlety our human and worldly relationships in the present moment. Whether it being drunk by members of the Heaven & Earth Society in tiled smokey tea houses or with great acts of mindfulness as part of a formal tea ceremony in some mountain retreat, tea has equal social power and potency regardless.