Making a compelling documentary on wine is not the easiest of tasks. In 2005 we had Mondovino, which grossed just over $200,000 in the US and $1.78 million worldwide, but with a running time of two hours 15 minutes appealed pretty much only to wine geeks.
Then the more-promising SOMM, following the fevered preparations for the Master Sommelier diploma, which did well on the festival circuit and makes the leap to cinemas in summer 2013.
In theory, Red Obsession, produced by Andrew Caillard MW, and directed by David Roach and Warwick Ross, should follow in the SOMM mould, as its subject matter – China’s recently-found obsession with high-end Bordeaux wine – promises to be interesting, and they have secured a gravelly voice-over from Russell Crowe which works well (as long as you ignore another – unwise – foray into wine-related films, A Good Year).
The opening sequence of Red Obsession is excellent, with a pared-back version of You Put A Spell On Me accompanying the camera as it pans around the high-tech cellars of Chateau Cos d’Estournel. Indeed the cinematography is exceptional throughout, and most of the chateaux owners who have seen it say they’ve never seen the Médoc looking so beautiful.
We get a slow entry into the majesty of Bordeaux wine, which could have been slimmed down, but things heat up 15 minutes in, when the camera switches to a few well-chosen pricing charts, and London wine merchant Gary Boom, of Bordeaux Index, doing some straight talking about investors who buy and sell wine without ever seeing the bottle itself. Five minutes later, and the heart of the film kicks in, with the obligatory shots of tai-chi introducing a switch of scene to China.
There are talking heads from the full array of wine experts; Jancis Robinson, Steven Spurrier, Michel Bettane, Jeannie Cho Lee, Ch’ng Poh Tiong, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Parker, Oz Clarke, and even Michael Parkinson.
But the star of the show is Christian Moeuix, with great lines such as ‘I’m a drinker more than a taster,’ while offering as proof the fact that he’s just shared three magnums over a lunch for seven. ‘That’s okay,’ he says with a smile.
With a run time of 75 minutes, Red Obsession keeps the pace moving along fairly swiftly. My main hesitation is that it feels at times like a period piece, as so much has changed in the Bordeaux-China relationship since the film was shot in 2011. If the film had been released last year, it would have felt more relevant. The tension between what’s on screen and what we know now does, however, make for fascinating – if painful – viewing, when we see, for example, Thibault Pontallier (son of Margaux managing director Paul) explaining Chateau Margaux‘s sponsorship of Miss China Universe, and Christie’s Simon Tam declaring confidently, ‘there is no bubble’.
The directors themselves are clearly aware that the film’s main narrative had hit a bump in the road, as the ending does cover recent price drops (again, charts are put to good use), but too much of the film is given over to price rises and the power of Lafite.
Having said that, some of the best parts are with the Chinese wine collectors, when the film starts to feel like Queen of Versailles – that brilliant documentary released last year about the folly of a wealthy businessman and his wife trying to build America’s biggest private home.
The footage of Hong Kong gangster movies from the 1990s, with the baddies drinking Lafite 82, are nicely cut in to the action, and the producers have found an assortment of Chinese success stories that amply demonstrate the red obsession of the title. Any film that manages to intercut scenes of a collector showing off his bottles of Lafite stacked in the bathroom and kitchen of his house, with a vibrator coming off the production line in his sex toy factory is doing something right. The George Tong interview is meaner-spirited though. He’s a toy manufacturer in Hong Kong, and a highly intelligent man, and I would imagine will feel slightly wounded to have been made to compare Bordeaux to Disneyland, with his section cut against the soundtrack ‘When I Wish upon a Star’.
Overall, these personality-driven sections could have been explored further, to give them more heart, but the producers have instead covered all aspects of Bordeaux’s relationship with China, from collectors, to forgeries to buying of land. It may have been more satisfying to narrow the focus and follow fewer characters in more depth, but this is a fascinating slice of recent history, and it’s well worth a viewing. There’s enough of general interest (mainly around the luxury goods industry in China) to appeal to people who don’t work in wine, and it’s a story that is certainly worth putting on screen.
Red Obsession premieres at the Berlin Film Festival on 13 February.
Written by Jane Anson in Bordeaux