'Coffee': Film Review | Beijing 2017

Coffee Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Orisa Produzioni
An aromatic blend overloaded with artificial sweetener.

Director Cristiano Bortone’s coffee-themed global ensemble drama is the first official co-production between China and Italy.

A cross-cultural multi-plot drama linked by the loose theme of coffee, Cristiano Bortone’s sixth feature is noteworthy for being the first fruit of an Italy-China co-production treaty signed in 2014. The Italian-born director, a USC and NYU graduate, collaborated with Chinese screenwriters and censors on Coffee, which is screening at Beijing International Film Festival this week. Bortone is also the founder of Bridging the Dragon, an initiative designed to foster closer links between the European and Chinese film industries.

Citing Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 2006 Oscar-winner Babel as inspiration, Bortone conceived Coffee as a panoramic snapshot of a globalized world in the grip of cultural and financial turbulence. His ambitions are admirably grand, even if the end result feels a little preachy and glib. Backed by a multi-national mix of production houses in Belgium, Italy and China, this universal message movie has obvious festival appeal and a modest shot at niche runs in multiple markets. The story may be simplistic and sentimental, but the same could be said of Babel, which scored highly both critically and commercially.

Coffee blends together three stories set in three different countries. In the Italian subplot, a photogenic pair of young lovers leave Rome to seek better fortunes in the coastal city of Trieste. Desperate for money after learning his girlfriend Gaia (Miriam Dalmazo) is pregnant, ninja-level coffee expert Renzo (Dario Aita) takes a minimum-wage warehouse job, where a motley gang of co-workers tap his inside knowledge to mount a heist. Their target is a valuable haul of ultra-rare Kopi Luwak, the part-digested coffee beans with a gold-plated price tag. But, inevitably, their get-rich-quick plan runs into messy complications.

Meanwhile, in the Belgian city of Antwerp, kind-hearted Arab storekeeper Hamad (A Prophet co-star Hichem Yacoubi) takes the law into his own hands after his shop is looted in a street riot. The theft of his beloved antique coffee pot leads him to a troubled young man Vincent (Arne De Tremerie) and his virulently racist father (Koen De Bouw). But their meeting ends badly, degenerating into a tense life-or-death struggle that mirrors Europe’s current immigration anxieties in microcosm.

Woven through these Euro-plots is the parallel story of Ren Fe (Lu Fang Sheng), a handsome hotshot executive for a Chinese coffee company, who is dispatched from Beijing to fix technical problems at a provincial factory. But returning to the rural backwater of his youth stirs conflicting emotions in Ren Fe, especially after his stern boss (and future father-in-law) orders him to turn a blind eye to illegal production methods that endanger both workers and the environment. Then a fateful meeting with eccentric local artist A Fang (Zhuo Tan), who has a bold scheme to expand her late father’s eco-friendly coffee farm, forces Ren Fe to rethink his soulless corporate values.

The three braided stories in Coffee never formally intersect, but they mirror each other in mood, motif and message. Each is shot in the same style, with heavy use of the hand-held shaky cameras that once signified gritty docu-drama realism, but which feel mannered and dated nowadays. Teho Teardo’s ever-present score, twinkly and mournful, also leaves little room for nuance or ambiguity.

Bookended by folksy father-son scenes in which the taste of coffee serves as a heavy-handed metaphor for the bittersweet flavors of life itself, Bortone’s film is a little too fond of fortune-cookie philosophy of the Forrest Gump variety: “always remember there's a thin thread connecting everything.” The characters rarely feel like more than mono-dimensional chess pieces in a black-and-white universe where a benign moral order can be restored with just a little more empathy between people. Each of these lost souls is on a learning journey, stuck in the wrong path until a shock epiphany reactivates their dormant humanity. There is no hint that their problems stem from underlying political or social causes, which may be the Faustian price paid for getting China's state censors on board.

In its favor, Coffee is a technically polished and good-looking production. It features solid performances across the board plus some well-staged, pacy thriller elements in its final act. Bortone maintains a commendably coherent tone and rhythm too, given that he is wrangling three globe-spanning plots, five different screenwriters and half a dozen languages. An impressive juggling act, even if the take-home message is almost comically banal: wake up and smell the coffee.

Production companies: Orisa Produzioni, Savage Film, Road Productions, China Blue Films
Cast: Miriam Dalmazio, Dario Aita, Tong Sheng Han, Yuqi Zhang, Qi Xi, Xiaodong Guo, Koen De Bouw, Arne De Tremerie, Hichem Yacoubi, Charlotte de Bruyne
Director: Cristiano Bortone
Screenwriters: Cristiano Bortone, Annalaura Ciervo Matthew Thomson, Shi Minghua, Shi Minghui
Producers: Cristiano Bortone, Bart Van Langendonck, Gongming Cai, Natacha Devillers
Cinematographer: Vladan Radovic
Editor: Claudio di Mauro
Music: Teho Teardo
Sales company: Orisa Produzioni, Rome, info@orisa.it
Not rated, 100 minutes