Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Karen Yip Leng-Chi, Yeung Chi-Hing, Wong Yu, Fung Ging-Man, Lee Pang-Fei, Chung Chan-Chi, Lam Wai-Tiu, Lam Siu, Lee Sau-Kei, Cheung Chok-Chow, Liu Wu-Chi, Pang Pang, Shum Lo, Tung Lam, Wong Ching-Ho, Cheng Kang, Fan Mei-Sheng, Bruce Le
Directed by Kuei Chih-Hung
Chen Kuan-Tai was a firmly established martial arts star when The Tea House was released, but it was his calm, powerful performance as Big Brother Cheng that cemented his status as a well-respected actor. The film was so popular — it reached #9 at the 1974 Hong Kong Box Office — that a sequel was made the following year titled after Chen’s character. Given the ending of The Tea House, I’m really excited to see where the sequel takes Big Brother Cheng. But to get back to The Tea House: it’s an interesting film, unlike really anything I’ve seen from the Shaw Studio.
The Tea House opens with a long tracking shot through the titular Cheng Chi Tea House, showing us what “normal” looks like at the establishment before unleashing the drama that will continually disrupt business throughout the film. But it’s not so much a movie that depends on its plot; it’s more concerned with commenting on the then-current state of juvenile delinquency and the justice system’s inability to properly deal with the problem. I’ve seen many Shaw films deal with delinquency, but The Tea House engages the problem in a complete unique and fresh manner. The film has a tendency to be episodic and not completely cohesive, but what holds it together is this thematic focus on how the film’s various groups handle punishment.
The justice system is represented at multiple levels (beat policeman, inspector, judge), and the gangsters share a similar hierarchy. At odds with both groups, Big Brother Cheng and his style of discipline emerges as the most engaging aspect of the film. Cheng is a man of few words, but thanks to the stoic performance by Chen Kuan-Tai, the other characters — and the audience alike — hang on his every word. Right from his first moment on-screen, you can feel how powerful and well-respected he is. He immediately commands your attention in a subtle way unlike any other Chen Kuan-Tai performance I’ve seen. I loved the guy before I watched The Tea House, but now my love has found a new depth.
Anyone expecting action, though, will be sorely disappointed. There is some action sprinkled throughout the film, and it’s an early choreography job for the wonderfully talented Ching Siu-Tung, but none of the action is anything close to martial arts. The bits of action are instead quick and brutal; it’s clear they were going for realistic bits to punctuate the film’s drama instead of the standard action-movie revenge. The standout action piece is filmed almost entirely in slow motion, and it’s probably one of the best uses of slo-mo that I’ve seen in the entire Shaw catalog. No further need to spoil it, just watch it!
If you’re just waiting for fights to break out, The Tea House could be interminably frustrating. But I found that without martial skill to rely on to solve the character’s problems, the film becomes much more than it otherwise could have been as a simple action film. There are ample opportunities for the film to have a whole mess of fights, but there is a conscious choice to avoid this traditional route. While this is somewhat disappointing as a fight fan, it works in The Tea House, and somehow never seeing Big Brother Cheng fight made him seem even more badass. His mystery grows as the film progresses, to the point that I don’t think any fight could have adequately delivered on the build-up of the character. It is implied that he can handle himself without issue, and that is enough to carry the picture.
The Tea House stands alongside and augments Chang Cheh’s best delinquent youth films. Thanks to the unique focus on punishment in its many forms, it’s almost better than Chang’s work in the genre (which does have a tendency to repeat itself a bit). Kuei’s proto-new wave visual style and extensive location shooting are evident throughout this social drama, adding an undeniable reality to the film. His daring, unique camerawork injects a lot of youthful spirit, as well. The film also exhibits some excellent comedic touches that work beautifully to release tension and counterpoint the serious social commentary. I look forward to revisiting The Tea House, as I have a feeling that this one will grow on me considerably. Definitely recommended to seasoned fans of the Shaw studio, Kuei Chih-Hung and Chen Kuan-Tai.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Pao Hsueh-Li’s Five Tough Guys! See ya then!