Judge Joel Pearce marvels at one woman's persistence and vision.
A handmade stop-motion fairy tale for adults.
I love stop-motion animation. I'm always impressed by the level of effort and dedication that it takes to painstakingly form each frame of the film separately, over a matter of years. To successfully create a stop-motion film, you have to have a strong vision and enough belief in your project to persevere to the end. Now, to create a feature length stop-motion animated film by yourself—that impresses me even more. But that's exactly what Christiane Cegavske has done with Blood Tea and Red String. She spent 13 years designing and animating this film. For that alone
Facts of the Case
The White Mice desire a companion, and so they approach the Creatures Who Dwell Under the Oak and commission a doll to be made. The creatures complete the doll, but love it so much they refuse to hand her over. They plant an egg in her belly, and keep her for themselves. When the mice steal the doll, three of the creatures are sent off to retrieve her. That's when the film begins to take several twists and turns into dark and surreal territory.
To try to describe Blood Tea and Red String is a futile endeavor, as it sets itself apart from everything else I have ever seen. Before I try to climb into this tangle of symbolism and imagery, the most important point here is that this is a film to be experienced. By you.
Now that we have that out of the way, I can dig in here. Blood Tea and Red String starts out like a fairly traditional beast fable, something along the lines of Beatrix Potter or Wind in the Willows. The only major difference is that the characters here do not speak. There is something unsettling about the doll, but it's easy to push out of mind as the creatures begin their journey. From there, the film begins a gradual slide into nightmare territory. There are many things about the film that I don't understand, and I don't think I need to. This tale is more about tone than story, and I think that each serious viewer will come away from this film with something entirely different but no less significant. It's a new and fascinating mythology, and one that could only be developed by a woman.
There is certainly a feminist bent to Blood Tea and Red String, but it is keenly realized and never feels angry. We notice that the doll that the creatures and mice fight over is the only humanoid female in the film. The spider and the baby bird creature are more animal than human. The doll is fought over like an object, unable to voice her own desires, and the way she is tied down is often quite disturbing. It's still rare to see a distinctly female perspective in film, and the viewpoint in this film is the best kind of feminism: pointed without being angry, and playful without being glib. Many of these images and veiled ideas haunt us long after the film is over.
It would be foolish to go through this review without mentioning the animation. It lacks the polish of Aardman Animations, but this is a one-person show we are talking about. I want to be careful, though, not to talk about it "considering only one person did the animation." This is beautiful work, regardless of how many people were involved. The characters are detailed and full of personality. Cegavske came up with highly inventive solutions to creating effects like fire and running water, all of which look unique and cool. I was frequently blown away by the small details that she took the time to include as well. Each set is full of things to watch, each carefully crafted by hand.
There are those who will be disappointed by Blood Tea and Red String. It is slow in spots, and the lack of dialogue leaves it frustratingly vague. While Cegavske has done a massive amount of work to create her personal masterpiece, she expects a high level of work from her audience as well. For those willing to dive into this fantastic new macabre little world, many rewards are to be found.
Thanks to Cinema Epoch, there are also many rewards to be found on this DVD release. The technical transfer is hardly groundbreaking, but impressive considering the film's origins. The film grain is accurately represented, flowing from the low budget, but the colors are nice and vivid. The sound is clear, though it doesn't have much depth. It's in a strange 3.1 format, which does offer clear separation. More important with this release is the collection of special features, including a commentary with Cegavske and critic Luke Y. Thompson. Cegavske is very soft spoken, but she warms quickly and speaks intelligently about her creation. Thompson knows when to speak and when to back off, letting her explain things for herself.
There are a couple of galleries as well, showing some of the details from the film as well as a few shots of production. Many of these are even more disturbing than the finished product, and offer a keen look at how this world evolved. I would have loved to see some of these drawings reproduced in a booklet, which would have been a much more pleasant way to explore these details.
The more I think about Blood Tea and Red String, the more I like its creativity and charm. It's so rare to find a new creative vision anymore, and this is a rare film that highlights the singular talents of a single person. Aside from the music and sound effects, this is a one-woman show, though I still can't begin to fathom the work it must have taken. For that effort alone, this film deserves to be seen. For the completely fresh and rich fairy tale it delivers, it ought to be purchased by everyone who appreciates great animation.
After 13 years of hard work, Cegavske has already done her time, though the court finds her innocent of all charges anyway.
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