Herbal Tea (2004)

Directed by: Herman Yau
Written by: Herman Yau, Simon Loui & Kalvin Lee
Producers: Ng Kin Hung & Simon Loui
Starring: Candy Lo, Jordan Chan, Lily Lee, Patrick Tang, Spencer Lam, Lo Meng, Simon Loui & Hui Siu Hung

Buy the DVD at:
HK Flix.com

May (Candy Lo - Time And Tide, Truth Or Dare: 6th Floor Rear Flat) runs a local herbal tea shop, being a child that lost her parents at the age of 14 (her parents were into their sixties when she was conceived however. That Chinese herbal tea and medicine is quite something!). Into her dedicated daily routines comes struggling actor/stuntman Dan (Jordan Chan - Colour of The Truth, Downtown Torpedoes) who moves into a vacant flat. They strike up a friendship, more so when May finds out Dan is dating her acting idol Linda (Lily Lee). As Linda has just broken up with Dan, May attempts to act as a matchmaker to fix them up again. However Dan's feelings have shifted towards May...

If you catch a whiff of critical acclaim coming from a Herman Yau movie, I'll go on record and say that it's very much worth investigating further. Uneven but with an extensive body of work that has generated noteworthy efforts (Killing End, Walk In, From The Queen To The Chief Executive, Taxi Hunter), Herbal Tea doesn't fit in with the greatest acclaim Yau has ever achieved but seeing as it's a quick romance genre entry, the results are somehow along the lines of noteworthy.

Often one to inject some form of satire or parody in his movies, Yau gives Herbal Tea time to examine the hardships a Hong Kong stuntman may face. True to form of real life stories, it's a profession not well paid or respected nor is the Hong Kong movie shoots glamorous in any way. Yau is venting a dissatisfaction somewhere in there but he rightly doesn't let any dark cloud hover over this pleasing comedy.

Missteps of Hong Kong movies over the last few years have been the neglecting of its own identity and I'm not talking about the lack of as much action cinema nowadays but the lack of a genuine Hong Kong atmosphere. For Yau, it seems awfully simple just to place his camera and crew right smack in the middle of urban Hong Kong but it lends itself to a rather charming atmosphere within this story (James Yuen's Crazy N' The City utilized the genuine Hong Kong streets to good affect as well). Some minor emphasis on declining economy, film geeks and their particular habits take center stage for a few moments, nothing again that makes any pessimism enter but of course, Herbal Tea goes the romance route expectedly primarily. Fairing well, not special overall.

Because no one will clearly see Herman Yau's film as a large budget, A-list star vehicle with a keen eye for originality but because Yau knows this, he focuses on making the little means as enjoyable as possible. Sure the supporting character gallery are eccentric and really aspects that could've been dropped (but the movie would be 20 minutes shorter), yet I give credit to Yau for not going all out surreal with his wacky humour compared to other rom/com's of today. Candy Lo's May is of course a perky energizer bunny (the only way Lo acts apparently), Dan the consummate movie fan trying to apply his very best even in Category III films and the herbal tea shop crew even has a youth character (Patrick Tang, also in Truth Or Dare: 6th Floor Rear Flat) who wants to be a sumo wrestler.

Part of that supporting gallery, Tang and also Spencer Lam do nothing but show up to be what may be perceived as crucial plot elements and to give comedic relief, yet they don't matter in the long run. But finally turning full on attention to May and Dan transforms Herbal Tea to a minor but charming pleasure. Yau, Simon Loui and Kalvin Lee got no genuine surprises up their sleeves concerning the romantic development but personally I liked the fact that there's a blurred line, an uncertainty between the characters whether or not they are developing into good friends or a couple. Yau subsequently also wisely utilizes Candy Lo's upbeat exterior as a plot element. I.e. as a cover for her true feelings and while Lo never does stand out, I've finally been charmed by her presence. Acting alongside the almost always likeable Jordan Chan doesn't hurt either. Newcomer Lily Lee (not to be confused with Shaw Brother's actress Lily Li) do not get a showcase but weak writing does. Played out first as a rather unsympathetic and deceitful better half of Dan's, Yau asks us to later sympathize with her apparent change of character but these are traits we are to assume have entered into her!

It adds on to an uneven experience but Herbal Tea deserves its share of kudos for delivering a pleasant time with main actors Candy Lo and Jordan Chan. Herman Yau ventures slightly into some worthwhile satire territory but ultimately delivers a romantic comedy like most others. Only standout aspect is that it's not as surreal and cloying as let's say Driving Miss Wealthy. Fluff it is however but occasionally, some better than average of that kind emerges and I'm glad it's Herman Yau behind it this time.

The DVD:

Universe presents the film in a 1.82:1 framed aspect ratio approximately. Print is free of damage and transfer relatively colourful and sharp.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track utilizes the front channels for some nice crisp effects and music at times but remains largely centered otherwise. Always clear sounding except for one early dialogue with Lily Lee but that seems to be a flaw inherited in the original production sound. A Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0 dub is also included.

The English subtitles are largely error free except for some spelling and grammar missteps during the latter half of the film. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available.

Extras include an unsubbed 10 minute, 8 second making-of that does try and spice up these usually stale programs with a sense of fun. Cast & crew interviews are on hand as usual, as well as the trailer, some bloopers and decent insight into the creation of stunts. Star's Files for Candy Lo, Jordan Chan and Patrick Tang are merely filmography listings and the 10 page fullscreen photo gallery is rather uneventful. Trailers for Anna In Kungfu-Land and Protégé De La Rosie Noire are also on offer.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson