Her Scents of Pu Er: film review

// Published May 7, 2022 by mgualt

Thanks to the Hotdocs film festival currently under way in Toronto, I just saw the world premiere of the 2021 short film “Her Scents of Pu Er”. Directed, produced and co-written by A.-C. O. Bogdanoff, and beautifully shot in super-shallow depth of field closeups by M. D. Hoekstra, this is a 17-minute long paean for “Master Tseng”, née Yu Hui Tseng, the founder and owner of Maison des Trois Thés, a tea shop in Paris that she established in 1995 and which is still going strong.

Master Tseng, contemplating what looks like hongcha.
Maison des Trois Thés, in the style of an early 20th century Chinese medicine shop.

The film begins by establishing Tseng’s tasting cred: she describes the nuanced aroma of the pigeons accumulating in Place Monge, a public square facing her shop, contrasting their earthy, dusty scent to that of the chickens being butchered in the open-air market. We enter her shop and follow her into a very carefully manicured and perfectly lit storage room, where she opens a tong (of her own production, of course) and has a gongfu Puerh session. There is some very brief talk about her distinguished ancestry, the cultural revolution and Chiang Kai-Shek, and we finally settle into the most interesting part of the film: the tasting session itself. I thought this part was quite well done: there was no excessive artifice and the focus was on how she felt drinking the tea. Her tasting notes were done in voice-over, associated with vaguely similar images of forests, rivers, sediment, and other natural scenes. She hit all the important points: feeling over taste, warmth in the hands, spreading along the meridians, circulating energy, and a lightness of being. On storage, she indicates that if the drinker is sufficiently attentive, one can follow the tea backwards in time, past the years of storage variations, to the true source. There seems to be a cultural metaphor there. Throughout the film, there are intertitles which explain Tseng’s accolades. In the end, the film gives a vivid impression of Tseng as a force of nature, a devoted and exacting master who single-handedly carries the mantle of Puerh tea, lifting it to its rightful place alongside, for instance, French wines.

I also like smelling corks. Elegantly done, Master Tseng!

One of the Laws of Tea is that any self-proclaimed Tea Master is only as good as his or her Marketing Budget. Tseng is no exception: a quick google search reveals an impressive sequence of ever-more hyperbolic glam pieces, a veritable path of destruction through the “Western” puerh-sphere. Some of my favourites among her claims are that she is the only female tea master, that she is the only tea master active outside of China, that she has one of the largest tea cellars in the world (it’s Yuuge), and that she herself is responsible for the now-stratospheric price of aged puerh tea, among (many) others. I don’t mind these claims so much, they are probably as funny to her as they are to me. Also, I don’t believe she needs any of them – her teas are generally regarded (by several puerh fans I know) as decent to good, her storage is on the dry side (perhaps a little too dry) and while most of her tea (and certainly her skimpy tasting sessions) is exorbitantly priced, some of her own productions are actually reasonable. I have tasted a couple of teas from M3T and they were good – on the dry side and a touch musty, but good. What sets her apart from many of her Taiwanese boutique producing peers is that she started significantly earlier, before the gushu craze, she focused on single origins from many parts of Yunnan, and although I haven’t tried a large enough cross-section to be sure, she doesn’t seem to have fallen for incorrect processing.

One does not simply enter La Maison des Trois Thés: make an appointment, and ring the bell.

That being said, it is Tseng’s obsession with the ultra luxury market which I find off-putting. A glance at her Wikipedia page lists her collaborations with a lineup of Michelin starred chefs and wine experts, but there are two projects in particular which capture, in my opinion, the unsavoury side of the Tea Master genre. The first is a defunct collaboration with, of all companies, Nestlé Waters, “the healthy hydration company”: some kind of research project about finding the “ideal water” for tea, which seemed to be providing water tastings focused on Nestlé owned brands. The second project, which I find particularly odious, is her “endorsement” of the “world’s first tea humidor”, a tiny box filled with crystal goblets and clocks that couldn’t store even a single cake of Puerh. Made by Lotusier, I can only admire the chutzpah of this thing.

Recommended by Master Tseng, this 30cm x 25cm x 14.5cm tea storage unit is only 15,000 USD.

Anyone who is intrigued by this trinket should be punished by being forced to buy it. For everyone else, I recommend the HotBox. I should make one for Master Tseng don’t you think?

Even as a jaded puerh junky, I enjoyed Her Scents of Pu Er, and I congratulate Master Tseng on a film that is an effective fusion of advertisement and art. 5.3.

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