Master Tseng, Yu Hui Tseng, is truly one of a kind as the world’s only female tea master and unrivalled as the only master to operate outside of China in her renowned salon, La Maison des Trois Thés in Paris. Filmmaker Anna-Claria Ostasenko Bogdanoff offers us a tantalising glimpse into her world through her sensorial documentary short Her Scents of Pu Er which immerses its audience in rows of hidden delights, all softly lit and filmed with a considered precision as Bogdanoff takes us on a timeless journey through Master Tseng’s delicate practice, walking us through a tasting of a traditional fermented Chinese tea. Her Scents of Pu Er pays homage to the revered, intricate world of traditional tea making, which far surpasses modern day consumption, and brings us back to more traditional practices which rivalled great writing and poetry and flow through Bogdanoff’s lush visuals and subtle but concise narration. We were able to speak to Bogdanoff about respecting Master Tseng’s loose approach to the planning of the film, translating the intangible sense of taste and smell into imagery and seeking a score to act as a companion to the tea tasting portrayed on screen.

How did you come to be making this sensory explosion of a film?

Scents have always had the power to take me back in time. At home, I conceal an old bottle of the perfume my mother used to wear when I was a child. I open it and smell it from time to time, just to come back to a certain moment of my childhood. For me, smells are strongly linked to memories. During the first lockdown, I realized more than ever how crucial this sense was for me. Being suddenly obliged to wear a mask at all times made me realize how much we, as human beings, depend on scents to connect to ourselves and to others. That’s when I asked Master Tseng if I could make a movie about her. I had known her for more than ten years and found her art and her character fascinating. For a long time I’d known she would be a brilliant subject for a film, but I was never bold enough to ask. She is a very private and impressive person, but she had been filmed by Tran Anh Hung, director of The Taste of Things, some years ago, so I knew she could handle a cinema crew. When I finally found the courage to ask her, I was lucky: she said yes.

Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world after water. We all drink tea. Maybe once a day, or once a week. Through this movie, I wanted to reveal the unknown complexity of this simple drink. For some people, just a sip of tea can be extremely personal and intense. Master Tseng is one of them. She is the first female Tea Master in China and one of the finest noses in the world. Aside from her incomparable knowledge of tea leaves, blends and aromas, what struck me most is how she finds absolute peace in drinking tea. It brings her to a private, inner place where nothing matters but taste and memory.

As soon as Master Tseng took that first sip of tea, it was as if she was transported somewhere else. A veil of calm descended. She did not see the camera, the crew, or the world any longer.

How did you look at planning a structure around the intangibility of scent?

Writing a proper script for Master Tseng was challenging, as she lives very much in the present. She refused to plan the filming ahead of time, and so I had no idea what to expect during shooting. All we agreed upon was that we would start in the market and that she would perform a Pu Er tea tasting for us. I was most interested in Pu Er as it is a tea that ages, and thus contains a complex heritage and history. As for the market scene, I wanted to show the accuracy of her sense of smell by making her smell ‘ghost smells’ after the Sunday market. She was open to the idea but did not want to do any rehearsal beforehand. She simply told me, “Well, we’ll just have to see if I smell anything!” And of course, she did. It was fascinating, she could identify the faintest aromas, crushed berries on one side of the street, or the subtle makeup powder of a woman passing by on the other.

I had once before done a tasting with Master Tseng, and it remained as one of the great experiences of my life. I felt I needed to share the beauty and depth of it with as many as possible. Master Tseng allowed us to shoot in her tea cellar, which was a true honor and sign of trust, as she had never shown it to anyone before. So even though we did not have a clear structure, we had this trajectory in mind: going from the bright and noisy outside world to the silent inside of the tea house, and finally arriving in the depths of the cellar, to this mysterious place that looks almost metaphorical.

Master Tseng’s schedule only gave us two days of shooting at her tea house, Maison des Trois Thés. We were a small crew – the director of photography Malte Hoekstra, the sound engineer Laura Chelfi, and me. I wanted to keep the crew as minimal as possible so that we could get close to her. In spite of this, I was always worried something would go wrong, it was such an important film, and we had so little time. Even with the small crew, we still had quite a bit of lighting and a large camera, how would we maintain the intimacy of the moment? But I shouldn’t have worried. As soon as Master Tseng took that first sip of tea, it was as if she was transported somewhere else. A veil of calm descended. She did not see the camera, the crew, or the world any longer.

Master Tseng’s manner of speaking is akin to poetry, what sort of questions were you asking her and did you need to guide her at all?

Master Tseng always appeared to me as a tea poet. She is not cerebral at all, and she uses images and sensations to describe tea. At the same time she is also a quite reserved person, and will not always be willing to talk – which I truly understand, having the same character (I feel it is probably why we get along and trust each other). I had thus prepared a few questions I wanted to ask her. The interview was set to happen in the cellar. I needed her to feel at ease with the camera, so I asked her questions while she was performing the degustation. As soon as she started drinking the tea, the evocations of the aromas came very naturally to her. So I did not have to guide her so much through that process. As it happens she answered some of my questions before I even asked them. She is an overly sensitive woman, and felt instinctively where I wanted to lead her. Again, Master Tseng was extremely precise in her gestures and actions, just as an actress would have been, if not more so.

The closer we got to her, the higher the emotion rose. She was silent at the end. Just savouring, without words.

After the interview, I realised I was missing some material to convey the sensation I was seeking. We came back a few days later to shoot the macros of another Pu Er tea tasting. The closer we got to her, the higher the emotion rose. She was silent at the end. Just savouring, without words. All we heard was the continuous whisper of the small kettle boiling. When we got to filming her eyes, it took my breath away. It was as if I was reaching a secluded place, a very deep one, rolling back in time, back to primal sensations. It is those micro shots combined with the evocations of the aromas that gave us the level of intimacy and the depth I was looking for.

Your macro shots and close ups transport us to her workshop with you. Can you tell us about your choice of camera equipment and how you decided on the lighting and set-ups in such a small intimate space?

The work on cinematography is essential in my approach to cinema. I had long discussions with DOP Malte Hoekstra to try and find the right aesthetic for the film. Translating senses of taste and smell into images meant much reflection on how to represent something that cannot be captured cinematographically. We chose to work with the evocative power of close-up shots. With the immersive macro shots, the intent was to trigger the spectator’s sensory memories, their own personal experiences of what appears on screen. This drove the close-up shots of Master Tseng’s journey alongside Pu Er. While drinking tea, she likewise embarks on a journey through memory and time. During the filming of the tea ceremony we started with a wide shot, from a respectful distance, as though we were intimidated by Master Tseng, and gradually got closer once the warm tea started to flow, infusing the room with scents.

With the immersive macro shots, the intent was to trigger the spectator’s sensory memories, their own personal experiences of what appears on screen.

It was quite a challenge to organize a shooting in the Maison des Trois Thés. The most difficult part was probably the cellar. It had never been shown before. No one had ever seen it except for Master Tseng and her crew, so they were all quite anxious about how we would represent this place. Entering it the first time was almost a mystical experience. You could feel the stillness, and smell the delicate aromas of the teas waiting in the dark.

Malte Hoekstra (DOP): As we were filming during the Covid pandemic, having a very minimal crew was imperative thus working with a gaffer wasn’t possible. For conservation purposes, tea is stored in the dark, in very minimal lighting, so for the camera to be able to pick up information the room needed some more level. The cellar being a treasure cave filled with precious tea, stored in a strictly regulated humidity and temperature environment, LED, with its minimal heat emission, was the only choice. A side key light was set up for Maître Tseng, supplemented with a top light, both flexible LED Panels, Aladdin 30×60. Both were diffused and cut to only shine on the desired area that was the ceremony desk. Two BoaFlex LED lights were added in the shelves to explain the room’s depth and also illuminate the displayed tea. I added some Aputure MC mini panels to enhance existing lighting fixtures or play with the transparency of parchment. There was just enough light to gather information in the dark, lenses were shot wide open.

I couldn’t have dreamt of a better location, the cellar is dark and mysterious at first but once the eyes get accustomed to the light emitted by the dim lamps, it slowly reveals its warm welcoming details, that is what motivated my lighting. My personal favorite, slightly unconventional trick was using vaseline, putting it on my finger and simply smearing it on a clear filter. This was done in just a few moments, adding a little mystical note, and makes for some of my favorite images of the film.

Proper lighting through added fixtures was only done for the cellar part. The rest of the tea shop was shot in natural light. During scouting I referred to the course of the sun in the day, so the schedule was planned accordingly. On a technical side I worked alone with a minimal camera footprint, on a tripod and handheld. We alternated cameras depending on availability for the day filming was scheduled. Inside the tea shop we filmed with a Panasonic S1H associated with Cooke Panchro lenses, unfiltered, other than NDs for upstairs. Additionally a Sony FS7 associated with Samyang prime lenses, including a 100mm macro, and a Canon 70-200 zoom lens, was part of our package for the market, right in front of the tea shop, but also the nature images. An Ursa G2 was also used for some shots. Mixing cameras and lenses multiple times wasn’t a concern, Gregoire Lesturgie did a wonderful job of creating a unified look in the color grading process.

How many hours of footage did you have and what was the editing process to weave all the elements of the film together like?

Editing was quite challenging for me, as I have an unfortunate tendency to dive head first in anything I do without setting boundaries between life and work – which is a bad idea with editing! It can be a wearing process if you don’t set certain ground rules in your workflow, and this one included many hours of night work. From what I remember I had around ten hours of footage, which felt like quite a lot having to come down to a 15 minutes movie. I had the trajectory of the film in mind but did not know if it was going to work. For instance, I was quite apprehensive about going back and forth between images of nature representing her inner world and reality. It took weeks, and many – many – versions before I considered myself satisfied and felt this particular sensation I was looking for all the way.

I would love to find out more about the music we hear which, as it should, seamlessly pairs with the images, resulting in the fittingly reverent feeling the film evokes.

I have been working with my brother Wenceslas Ostasenko on all of my film scores. We have had a very fruitful collaboration, and working with him always makes me see my own film through a new perspective. He usually starts composing when I’m halfway in the edit. From there we work hand in hand in telling the story right. This film is essentially about a certain rhythm, and I must say the score helped me find the right pace.

Wenceslas Ostasenko (Composer): The initial melody begins the journey, leading us into a profound connection with the art of the tea ceremony and the universe of Master Tseng. The music serves as a companion, guiding the viewer through this initiation. The interplay of senses is integral to the essence of the original score, weaving an emotional narrative that complements the visual tale of Master Tseng. Just as a painting evokes personal emotions, the music completes the portrait, fostering a unique connection to the artist. Collaborating with my sister Anna-Claria has significantly shaped our artistic journey. In this project, I curated a selection of instruments like the Dizi (Chinese bamboo flute) and the Chinese gong to create a unique sonic palette and pay homage to Chinese culture and history. I drafted a score to add depth to the story, recording primarily in the studio using softwares like Live Ableton and Logic. This allowed me to blend recorded instruments with synthesizers, creating a bridge of sounds. As the visuals shift towards a more final cut, the music adapts to mirror this journey, ironically paralleling the initiative process presented in the film.

The interplay of senses is integral to the essence of the original score, weaving an emotional narrative that complements the visual tale of Master Tseng.

It is evident you have an almost preternatural artistic eye, how did you residency year at The Musée des Arts Décoratifs further form you as a filmmaker?

I have always thought of cinema as the art of the moving picture. It is really crucial to me that my films convey sensations and emotions through the sole power of images. My education in production design at La Fémis cinema school strengthened this approach, as I learned to think a movie mostly through space, color and light. I would say my year residency at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs furthered this approach. We can consider a museum as a pantheon where each object would be a tomb to which we would pay homage. I rather saw this museum as a set in which the object opens a door to an imaginary space where, between light and shadow, you could encounter the ghosts of the Little Prince and the chimeras of Thierry Mugler. I found it truly exciting to build a narration around still objects, as it forces you to think out of the box.

When lacking inspiration, I would take a stroll in the empty galleries of the museums, lighting them with the flashlight on my phone.

Furthermore, I edited the videos I directed during residency myself, which helped me find my very own way of telling stories. I had a secluded office at the far end of the centuries-old building of the Louvre (Musée des Arts Décoratifs and the Louvre are the same building), right on top of the studio of Phoenix, a rock band that were in residency there as well. I remember editing my films while listening to the guitar chords playing again and again. I would sometimes work very late at night. When lacking inspiration, I would take a stroll in the empty galleries of the museums, lighting them with the flashlight on my phone. In the midst of the night, I would contemplate the strict faces of medieval portraits, smell the distinct smell of ancient wood, listen to the old clocks ticking. It was all very unique.

What are you going to put your talents to next?

I am currently working on several film projects. I wrote a fiction short film that is currently in financing. My producer aims to shoot in spring 2025 – the financing process for short film in France is great, but can be really long. This film is about grief, and will be the opportunity for me to talk about personal experience through fiction. In the meantime, I am also writing my first feature, a documentary that will take me back to my family history.

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