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Tea can be an energizer or a sedative. “Black Tea,” the first film in a decade from veteran Mauritanian auteur Abderrahmane Sissako, sips exclusively from the latter end of the shelf, passing through chamomile-type calm into outright soporific territory. And if that seems a trite metaphor related to the beverage, this tepid Berlinale competition entry has plenty more of its own: A love story between a Chinese tea-shop owner and an Ivory Coast émigré that is rooted in the rituals of brewing and consuming the blessed leaves, the film aims for woozy sensualism but falls way short on the ambient richness and X-factor chemistry required to sell such an essentially confected exercise.

It’s altogether a mystifying misstep from Sissako, typically a filmmaker of such formal and political vigor; by its close, the ten years separating “Black Tea” from 2014’s beautiful, shattering “Timbuktu” feel closer to an eon. Though this multinational production has already locked down an imminent release in Sissako’s adoptive country of France — where “Timbuktu” premiered at Cannes and reigned over the Césars in its year — it’s hard to see arthouse distributors in other territories flocking to a significantly less consequential affair, which oddly holds back on the sensory spectacle you might expect from a film seeking to do for mountain oolong what “The Taste of Things” did for baked Alaska.

An opening sequence set — though not obviously established — in Abidjan has both witty promise and stray hints of the off-form filmmaking to come. On the creamy satin slopes of a billowing wedding dress, a (rather obviously CG-rendered) ant forges a path before being swatted out of existence. The dress’s wearer is revealed to be Aya (Nina Mélo), seated beside her fiancé Toussaint (Franck Pycardhy) in an overcrowded, overheated mass wedding hall, and her face suggests she’d rather be the ant, abrupt end and all. At the altar, she most politely tells Toussaint that their respective futures don’t include each other, before turning on her heel and striding down the crowded market lanes of Abidjan.

The streetscape is gradually overlaid with parallel images from another side of the world — eventually made out through the murk as the Chinese port city of Guangzhou, where Aya reemerges in a declarative red gown and Afro hairdo, as a part-Bambara cover of the Leslie Bricusse standard “Feeling Good” by Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara consumes the soundtrack. The oft-used song, made a paean to thriving Black womanhood in Nina Simone’s defining 1965 version, is a strangely clunky, literal choice from a filmmaker usually given to more elegant suggestion, though it serves to broadly fill in a blank space of motivation regarding Aya and her journey to China. Mélo’s disarming but rather opaque performance hints at an itchy, unarticulated objective in her departure from Africa, beyond a one-way desire for escape — a spiritual contentment that has eluded her on home turf.

She finds it, or at least the makings thereof, in Chocolate City, a district of Guangzhou where African immigrants mingle with Chinese market traders. More specifically, she’s drawn to the elegant, low-lit tea boutique run by Cai (Chang Han), a middle-aged local who, despite a cozy surrounding community, projects a thousand-yard air of wistful loneliness. Both outsiders of sorts — her geographically, him by self-imposed distance — they soon recognize in each other a common yearning. As love blooms, so do their souls, in the patient, languid manner of tea leaves steeping in water. Or so Sissako would have it, though the central romance in “Black Tea,” while sympathetically reserved, is also largely inert: There’s no jolt of passion between these two tentative lovers, no conflict that isn’t calmly and immediately resolved, no shading or peculiarity that makes either character particularly interesting in repose.

On the occasions where the love story slows to complete, dewy-gazed stasis, the film is kept afloat by a speckling of subplots involving other gentle-natured denizens of Chocolate City — as well as Cai’s wounded ex-wife Ying (Wu Ke-Xi) and his two children, one a dutiful son (Michael Chang) who helps out in the store, the other a mysteriously estranged daughter in Cape Verde. None of these secondary characters is drawn in especially compelling detail, and while there’s more interest in the collective social hum of the night market street where the film is predominantly set, it’s realized in an airless, artificial fashion — shot in Taiwan rather than China — that does little to enliven proceedings.

Cinematographer Aymerick Pilarski, who brought such a sense of panoramic mystery to Quan’an Wang’s 2019 Berlinale entry “Öndög,” lights proceedings with painstaking care, attentive to the tone and glow of contrasting skin colors. Yet there’s a hard crispness to the film’s digital images that occasionally works against its attempts at dreamy immersion — when cigarette smoke or tea steam occasionally cloud the image, the film shoots for a kind of Wong Kar-wai atmospheric haze that doesn’t feel entirely natural to Sissako’s filmmaking. A day trip to a sprawling green tea plantation, its undulating hedges curving around hill under magic-hour light, feels like a positive vacation from the rest of this stately, stifled film.



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