‘Black Tea’ Review: Abderrahmane Sissako Returns with a Warm and Comforting Portrait of China’s African Community

It’s been 10 years since Mauritanian–Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako last directed a film (2014’s “Timbuktu,” a devastating account of life under Jihadi rule in contemporary Mali), but his much-anticipated return is suffused with a lightness that belies the long wait. A soft-focus romantic drama that channels some of the same humanism that steeped its way into “Timbuktu,” “Black Tea” finds Sissako applying his empathetic gaze towards the service of a much gentler vision.

It starts with a prologue of sorts set on the Ivory Coast. Aya (Nina Mélo), an Ivorian woman in her thirties, is about to get married but has just discovered that her future husband has been unfaithful. In a memorable opening image, a black insect walks through the folds of her white dress — an ominous fly in the ointment — as she waits for the nuptials to begin, her face twisting with uncertainty.  At the altar, she astonishes her family by refusing to say “I do,” choosing instead to walk out of the wedding and onto the streets outside.

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The film then jumps forward in time, rejoining Aya in Guangzhou, where she is now living in “Chocolate City,” a lively Afro-Chinese community where a makeshift family has formed amongst the quarter’s multi-generational, mixed heritage business owners. Aya has taken a job at a fine tea shop where she has quickly formed a bond with her boss, Cai (Han Chang), who is teaching her the rituals of the Chinese tea ceremony. Drawn together by their passion for tea and by many longing glances over the top of steaming clay cups, Cai and Aya begin to pursue a tentative romance.

Alas, their budding relationship is threatened by unresolved traumas from both of their pasts, including Cai’s tension with the ex-wife Ying (Wu Ke-Xi), and his estrangement from the love child he fathered during a marriage-ending affair with a Cape Verdean woman.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is the multi-stranded portrait it offers of a diaspora not widely seen on screen, at least by European audiences. Guangzhou has a history of African migration which stems back to the economic boom of the 1990s, and these migrants now form a sizable minority, approximately 2 percent of the population of China’s third-largest city, making them the biggest African community in Asia. By locating his film within this diaspora, Sissako gestures towards this larger geo-political story, demonstrating how shifting global economic power is reshaping the face of contemporary China.

In “Black Tea,” Sissako encapsulates this shifting balance smartly through a sequence in which an Arab businessman navigates the wholesale markets of Guangzhou, negotiating for the best prices on lacy underwear through an interpreter, who elegantly translates across two different business cultures.

Migrant experience has long been a preoccupation for Sissako, whose work often reflects on the bittersweetness of diasporic life. In “Waiting for Happiness” (2002), a student returns to Mauritania after studying abroad and finds he can hardly remember the local Arabic dialect, while in “Life on Earth” (1998), the filmmaker himself plays an émigré, a fictional version of himself, who returns from France to a small town in Mali.

In “Black Tea,” Aya’s migrant story forms the trunk from which other incidental tales of cross-cultural life, love, and loss branch away; from Ying’s moment of unexpected connection with a French woman in a bar, to the story of Cai’s Cape Verdean daughter learning Chinese in tribute to a father she has never met. Sissako is skilled at capturing the unexpected alliances that can form in immigrant communities, where many different backgrounds are thrown together without much in common than a shared homeland. Scenes set in an African salon, where Aya is greeted like a sister and an endless queue of Chocolate City locals sit idly chatting, are wonderfully captured. Some of the film’s most effective moments, such as an impromptu a cappella sing-along in the salon and an Afro-pop-inflected dance class attended by Cai’s son Li-Ben (Michael Chang), use music to bring this cultural melting pot to vivid life.

Sissako’s work has always been more driven by poetry, implication, and subtext than it has by traditional plot. Aya tells a friend early on that, in order to make real tea, you have to wait, a plea for patience that could have come directly from the filmmaker himself. “Black Tea” has many lyrical moments, but sometimes the formlessness of the narrative proves frustrating. At times, the film buckles under the weight of our expectations, struggling to balance the genre tropes of romantic drama with Sissako’s interest in offering a 360-degree snapshot of multi-cultural life.

Although Mélo makes for a charismatic protagonist, the many characters and subplots can feel overwhelming, and it’s not always easy to unpick the many tangled relationships. A diversion to Cape Verde yields some gorgeous scenery and a lovely sequence of musicians performing fado (more cross-cultural heritage), but feels tacked on and inconsequential. All this noise makes for an intriguing ambience, but it also distracts from the love story between Cai and Aya, which means that we can’t fully emotionally invest in that central relationship. As a result, the film’s other key themes — love, betrayal and forgiveness — recede into the background, never quite landing with the profound weight we might hope for from a filmmaker of such proven brilliance.

Despite the deep potential resonance of the subject matter, that lack of emotional stakes also extends to Sissako’s exploration of migrant experience. Toward the end of the film, the arrival of Cai’s racist in-laws prompts a reckoning between Cai and Aya, which points towards the discrimination — both explicit and implicit — experienced by many Africans in China. The introduction of this element, so late in the day, offers an intriguing alley not otherwise explored. While it’s good to see a portrait of diaspora that doesn’t focus only on racism and xenophobia, it would perhaps have added another emotional dimension if this were explored more deeply elsewhere.

In one scene of gentle seduction, Cai describes to Aya the magic of black tea, a variety that initially delivers one flavor before yielding a whole other aroma as it is drunk. For all its comforting warmth, Sissako’s film ultimately lacks the deeper complexity of its namesake, even if watching it is often as soothing as sipping a freshly brewed cup.

Grade: B-

“Black Tea” premiered at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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