DVD Review - Blood Tea and Red String
There is something delicate, quaint, tactile and hermetic about stop-motion animation. This is true from the glossy work of Henry Selick, to the homey feel of Aardman Studios to the downright creepy work in Rhinoceros Eyes. I can think of nothing more suitable to capture the feeling of a tea party which those same adjectives (if only to add one more: feminine) could be applied. It makes Jan Švankmajer’s Alice a spectacular re-telling of Lewis Carroll’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Christiane Cegavske’s Blood Tea and Red String goes beyond this and takes Alice, who in these types of fairy tales is the bridge into this stranger world -- the character we can relate to -- right out of the equation. And yet even further, she removes verbal language, opting to tell the story entirely free of dialogue if you exclude the occasional animal-like squawk. The result is an artistically rendered act of world construction and non-verbal storytelling which jumps directly into Cegavske’s subconscious.
This is a place where haughty lace attired albino mice commission the Dwellers in the Oak, fuzzy peasants with beaks, to build them a human doll. The Dweller-family fall in love with their new creation, however, and refuse to give the doll to the mice. They return to them the money instead. The Dwellers plant an egg into the dolls innards before hanging it over their modest tree-home, somewhat Christ-like, with red-string coming out of the hand-holes like blood. Things are peaceful until the devious mice return at night to steal the doll away to their upscale house so they can play a curious game of cards (curious because the cards have no actual images on them, they are completely blank). The dwellers set off on a journey to reclaim their love, encountering unusual creatures, both benevolent and menacing.
If I am long winded and plot specific, it is only because the film is the opposite. Shot over a period of 13 years (the film nonetheless looks consistent throughout), it is immersive in terms of stopping to smell the roses rather than racing to the next narrative turn. If Blood Tea and Red String threatens to be about class struggle, the nature of obsession or even possibly a religious allegory, thankfully it retreats from any sort of commitment. Instead it remains true to the dream-logic the film operates on. For me it was about simply tuning into this mixture of the familiar and the strange. Also rewarding was examining the richness of detail, from the body language of the characters to the subtly absurd sense of humour at play, to the surprisingly rich set-pieces. The amount of mannerisms and character realized even on minor characters is surprising. A spider which both the mice and the Dwellers pay tribute to at one point, is first shown to be imperial and indifferent but eventually moves towards the curiously tragic; this is all accomplished in less than 5 minutes screen time.
One criticism I’ve read (more than once) from festival screenings is that the film would have worked better as a short film rather than a feature. When dealing with a film operating with its own unique logic, the experience has to be immersive. Maybe the film flirts with being distant and cold a times, but it is exactly the right length to allow things to envelope the viewer.
A film which opens with white icing and cockroaches and closes with jewelry makes for a fascinating combination of icky and hermetically sealed. It is most definitely worth the visit to Cegavske’s world if you are willing to stop, look around, and catch her deliciously antiquated vibe.
Cinema Epoch offers up the film in its original full frame presentation. Included on the disc is a stills collection as well as a director commentary accompanied by critic Luke Thompson, although the difference between the two of them (her shy, he attempting to be funny) is so great, it is almost like they are in separate commentaries.