Bubbling Under the Surface, TEA LAND 高山上的茶園 Uncovers a Migrant Story Less Told
Circumstances placed a group of runaway workers together on the hills of a tea plantation. But as the prospect of home beckons, their camaraderie starts to fall apart when an unexpected death occurs.
Directors: Tseng Ying-Ting
Cast: Phanet Phongsai, Sajee Apiwong, Wasit Seehawong, Chen Qiu-Zhen, Sỹ Toàn
Language: Mandarin, Thai, Vietnamese
Runtime: 27 minutes
“I just want to go home,” An (Sajee Apiwong) croaks in Tea Land, expressing the sentiments that every one in her makeshift family shares. Together with Chai (Phanet Phongsai), Xin (Wasit Seehawong), and a pair of Vietnamese siblings (Chen Qiu-Zhen and Sỹ Toàn), they form a band of migrant runaway workers who find themselves leading an invisible life on the hills of Taiwan.
From hiding from the police to singing loudly into the night, the characters form an unlikely family – with some couples in the mix – as they share the same plight. Suddenly, Xin gets the opportunity to leave. And there, their merrymaking ends.
In 27 minutes, Tea Land manages to bring the audience on a rollercoaster ride filled with joy, romance, sympathy, and mystery. The film juggles astutely between keeping us on the edge of our seats and letting us catch our breaths amidst the many events taking place.
Even with the constant happenings, Tea Land ensures that enough time is given to dwell in the range of emotions. We experience the unrestrained ecstasy after a long day of work. We feel the anxiety of separating lovers. And it is in giving ample significance to these feelings that the loss of them becomes even more disconcerting.
The overall serenity of the film allows us to easily sit back, relax, and let whatever is happening on screen wash over us. But underneath the innocuous and tranquil setting of endless tea plantation is the pressing issue of the subdued lives that the runaway workers lead. Laying low between the crops, the workers are forced to hide not just from the sight of the police, but also from the viewer who has to squint to find them in the greenery.
Despite the drama genre, there is no major emotional outburst throughout the film. Their problems are waved away apathetically by their employers, by the film, and by us. Prevented from being seen, from going home, from even getting medical attention, the characters have no choice but to take things in stride, and even take matters into their own hands.
Instead of relying on excessive dialogue or music, the short film uses abrupt cuts and concise scenes to effectively move the story along and jolt us when needed. Picturesque shots of the tea plantation are aplenty, providing not just a resplendent display for sore eyes but also paying tribute to the hard work put into maintaining them.
And when things get too much, the interjections of the scenic mountain-hills help to slow things down. They also serve another purpose of preventing us from getting too invested in the plot, just like the workers’ employer does when he says, “I will say that I don’t know anything about today. You will fix this on your own.”
Each character is rooted in a web of relationships, either in the foreign land of the plantation or with their families waiting for them back home. They are not just runaway workers, but also husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. The film makes sure to empathise with their plight as much as it strives to give them their own voice. And in never letting us forget about the tea plantation, Tea Land leaves us reflecting over the persistent thought that the plot of land is a sanctuary that both protects and endangers the workers.
Have a look at the trailer: