Blood Tea and Red StringReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/09/06 21:39:37
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2006 BOSTON FANTASTIC FILM FESTIVAL: Christiane Cegavske spent over a decade making "Blood Tea and Red String", creating its meticulously realized world one frame at a time even as she moved from city to city. That extraordinary dedication pays dividends; her creation is a stop-motion fantasy that captures the audience in a way that few films have since "The Dark Crystal".In the film, an aristocratic mouse commissions an "Oak Dweller" craftsman to create a mouse-sized doll in the shape of a human girl (Oak Dwellers are birdlike, but furry). The elderly Oak Dweller does this, but cannot bear to part with his creation. He returns his payment, but that does not placate the mouse and his friends, who return in the dead of the night to steal her away. Upon discovering the theft, the craftman's family sets out on a quest to retrieve the doll - not only does the old man love his creation, but he has secreted an egg found by the river in its midsection.
Ms. Cegavske has created a world that feels remarkably real despite its lack of human beings - indeed, in part because of how they're missing. The Oak Dweller creates his effigy from a picture the mouse shows him, which greatly resembles the woman in the film's live-action bookends. Those segments are far stranger than the rest of the film, featuring an eerily silent woman in kabuki makeup serving a cake that disgorges spiders once she cuts it. In contrast, the animals' world seems almost familiar in comparison. It's a world out of fairy tales, where animals take on human behaviors such as wearing clothes or eating at tables with utensils but still remain true to their natures.
The filmmaker opts not to give her characters voices, relying instead on expressive body language to them their distinctive personalities. This may have been a decision made out of necessity, but it works very well regardless. To give her characters human voices would likely have required giving them human mouths, and having them walk on two legs is anthropomorphism enough. The silence is eerie, but still communicative. There's dignity to the old dollmaker, and the leader of the white mice does a fine job of blustering and being demanding using just his hands. A wise amphibian healer makes an appearance, but the film is frequently stolen by the spider. She is not just a beautiful model with spindly legs, lovely facial features, and an accurately positioned spinneret, but Cegavske gives her a sort of cold amorality - she will give aid to either the Oak Dwellers or White Mice, but expects something in return - generally, something she can wrap in a cocoon and feed on. Still, she's up front and matter of fact about her literal bloodthirstiness, unlike the boorish mice who attempt to get the better of her.
In fact, the creature that seems most dangerously animalistic has the most human face, though it's a chimera otherwise. Its emergence from the doll and general behavior is sufficiently monstrous enough to bring some extra excitement to the ending, which actually borders on the frantic at times. This was the only point where it seemed that the lack of dialog was really hurting the film, because it's got little ability to give us exposition about just what is going on: Was this inevitable, or the result of the new creature emerging near the mice and the doll? The fantasy threatens to get a little too disconnected at that point.
Whatever one might think of action, it's hard not to be impressed with the landscape in which it unfolds. I don't know what scale was used for the models, but it's large enough for them to manipulate things as small as tea cups, so I'm guessing the mouse maquettes are larger than actual mice. That means that the environments must be larger still, and though many scenes take place in a wooded setting which keeps Ms. Cegavske from having to build all the way to a distant horizon, there's still some impressive vertical scale and enough different camera angles to keep it from feeling like the world ends just outside of camera range. The details are impressive, from the litter in the mouse's house to the strange skull-faced sunflowers. Some of the scenes with water made me understand why Aardman went CGI with Flushed Away; the crinkled cellophane was artful and evocative but not always convincing.That "Blood Tea and Red String" exists at all is remarkable enough: Even if you assume that only an hour of its 71-minute running time is stop-motion animation and that it was animated at twelve frames per second rather than the full twenty-four, that's over forty thousand frames that are the work of one woman; it's a mammoth undertaking. Happily, this is not a case of something being impressive for being done at all; it's done well, full of genuinely creepy magic.
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