Berlinale 2024 review: Black Tea (Abderrahmane Sissako)

Black Tea is clearly Sissako’s ode to Hong Kong master Wong Kar-wai, with those sultry looks between protagonists, languid cinematic tones and slow, well-paced dialogue — which doesn’t waste a single word.”

To understand the latest film by Abderrahmane Sissako, one must have the patience to perceive something outside of our own daily consciousness. Black Tea is the fictional story of an Ivorian woman named Aya, who moves to China after making a difficult choice on her wedding day. She ends up living in Guangzhou, in a small area called “Chocolate City”, which at last count houses somewhere between 20,000 and 200,000 West Africans. Those temporary and often transient residents amount to less than two percent of the total population of the Cantonese port city on the Pearl River. This reality exists, even if most of us are completely unaware of it, and it is a beautiful surprise to watch Aya, along with her West African compatriots, move about within the Chinese community, speaking their language while still honouring the traditions and clothing of her native Ivory Coast.

With Black Tea and all it represents, Sissako had me at “hello”.

We often speak of ill-adjusted migrants living in Europe and America, but do we really know and understand about their presence in Asia? It is not unusual to find East Africans living comfortably throughout the Arab world, and this film offers just one more piece of the puzzle. Unlike their westward bound countrymen, or rather dwellers from the same continent of Africa, the ones who travel eastbound perhaps have a better chance of creating a more successful reality. Albeit a more short-term one, as visas issued by Middle Eastern countries expire, and restrictions exist in the Far East, a much more controlled environment than the US or Canada.

Black Tea is clearly Sissako’s ode to Hong Kong master Wong Kar-wai, with those sultry looks between protagonists, languid cinematic tones and slow, well-paced dialogue — which doesn’t waste a single word. The music, also multicultural like that of In the Mood for Love, offers a hint as well, as does the mention of Wong’s film early on in the story — a casual throwaway line at a restaurant. Sprinkle in a bit of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution without the sex, as well as a surprising Sliding Doors twist you’ll have to watch to understand, and you’ve got the whole picture of Black Tea. Or do you?

Within Black Tea there is also a special call to reconnect with the magic of cinema, that instance when something on the big screen — the only place where Sissako’s work belongs — changes your breathing and takes you to a different world. This is a courageous move by an already gutsy filmmaker. The Mauritanian-born Malian director and producer has always spoken about displacement, self-imposed exile and globalization in his work. With Black Tea he adds beautiful tones of romance, yet within a ne’er-to-be love affair between Aya (Nina Mélo) and her employer, tea shop owner Cai (Chang Han). The unspoken passion between them, unexplored and thus thrown into their love and respect of tea leaves, requires an otherworldly belief in the power of love and how it can change us.

Black Tea’s acting is phenomenal and Sissako scored some fantastic thespians in both his protagonists, Mélo and Chang, but also within the ensemble of Chinese and West African characters who round out the cast. The cinematography by Aymerick Pilarski, a French DoP now working across Asia, the US and Europe, is as sultry and intimate as the story, penned by Sissako alongside Kessen Fatoumata Tall.

A final observation: while watching Black Tea at a press screening, I noticed the man sitting next to me fidgeting and moving uncomfortably in his plush seat. Several times he reached into his large backpack on the floor, only to come up empty-handed. It was as if he was looking for a special tool, one which would help him to understand Sissako’s quiet ode to cinema and life. Little did he know that he already possessed that tool deep within himself. All he needed to do was sit still and breathe calmly and he would have entered a new dimension, one filled with magic and beauty.

Because sometimes, when magic and beauty offer themselves to you, all you have to do is accept them, as a dogma, without asking why, how, where or when.