'All in This Tea'

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Like the drink whose virtues it describes, the documentary "All in This Tea" is brisk and agreeable, a handcrafted ode to the brew that is the beverage of choice where the Chinese, among many others, are concerned.

Doing the brewing this time is veteran documentarian Les Blank, who's made films about food and drink before: Think "Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers" and "In Heaven There Is No Beer?"

Here, co-directing with Gina Leibrecht, he focuses on the exploits of David Lee Hoffman, an American tea fanatic on the loose in China.

A gregarious and indefatigable zealot, Hoffman learned about tea during a decade in Asia living out of a backpack, a time when he did so much traveling he listed his occupation as "vagabond."

Though "All in This Tea" is a little unclear about how Hoffman actually makes a living or how the teas he loves get to market, his passion is clear. It is his life's work to bring both respect and economic viability to the kinds of delicate handmade teas still produced in small amounts in the remotest areas of China.

For as Hoffman and several talking tea heads in "All in This Tea" point out, tea at its best is a handcrafted product, comparable in its complexity to the product of the winemakers' art. How and for how long the picked leaves are dried is a key element in this endeavor, a skill passed on from generation to generation that might be lost to the forces of economic modernization.

What great tea leaves definitely don't need is the stench of pesticides, a smell that so horrifies Hoffman that his one-word dismissal when he sniffs it -- "chemicals!" -- fairly drips with scorn. On the other hand, when the fragrance is the way it should be, Hoffman almost gets high just inhaling the leaves.

The film's title comes courtesy of filmmaker Werner Herzog, the subject of an earlier Blank film called "Burden of Dreams." When he drinks an elixir made from Hoffman- collected leaves, he says he imagines a lush and verdant landscape. And, he says approvingly, "it's all in this tea." A celestial beverage indeed.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

"All in This Tea." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes. In limited release.

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