ACA Cinema Project: Tea Friends, A Place In The Sun For Third Age Sex

ACA Cinema Project: Tea Friends, A Place In The Sun For Third Age Sex

In this year’s line-up for the ACA Cinema Project Japan there is a film with a curious story, inspired by a twenty-year-old who created a groundbreaking escort service for the elderly.

The film, written and directed by Bunji Sotoyama, is subtle in reverting power roles. Older generations used to boss around young people, whereas in this story Generation Z is in control, using boomers as workforce. The strategy is very cunning, because the advertisement in the newspaper isn’t too explicit. It states that there is a service that provides “friends for tea.” What happens next, is that elderly “tea girls” are sent to the men who respond. The young team members, who coordinate the appointments, promote their activity by saying they “arrange social connections and develop networks.” The business thrives, since the premise that is shown to us is how the elderly in Japan feel abandoned and long for a moment of affection and consideration. Sex becomes therapeutic and having grandmas for call girls is also convenient to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

Bunji Sotoyama is not new to the topic of third age narratives, since his 2010 On This Side was a heart-wrenching tale about an old man caring for his disabled wife. The short film won five honours including Best Short Film at the Monaco International Film Festival.

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Tea Friends begins with a blissful and light-hearted tone, as Mana (Rei Okamoto) — a former sex worker turned into CEO — leads her company and empathetically coordinates the elderly ladies. Mana embraces this job as a mission and firmly believes that “everybody is so brainwashed by rules and morality that they’re all unhappy,” therefore “righteousness is not happiness.

Tea time is served with a few blue pills. If in the eyes of the masses this service may be seen as a prostitution racket, its founder and employees like to see themselves as “pioneers of a new lifestyle” and “home helpers in a broad sense.” As a matter of fact it is not only the steam and passion, that occurs under the sheets, that benefits both the clients and sex workers. Emotional gratification is crucial.

As the narrative unfolds what emerges is how Mana’s loneliness seems to be narcotised by her dedication to comforting those around her. In fact, the mood of the storytelling gradually changes as we discover Mana’s family situation, as well as when she lets a new escort in her company: Matsuko (Maki Isonishi). This woman is on the verge of ending her twilight years when Mana offers her a new opportunity. Matsuko not only accepts and enjoys the change, but she becomes a motherly figure to her employer.

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Meanwhile, Bunji Sotoyama’s film gracefully unravels several other existences. Mana has created a family for young wretched souls like herself. For instance there is Chika (Kainuma Miu), who finds out she’s pregnant, but her boyfriend doesn’t want to acknowledge the baby; and there is Yoshiki (Suzuki Takeru), who reproaches his father for having given up a steady job, to pursue his dream of opening a bakery and failing miserably. Also the various elderly escorts are part of this extended family, as they embrace a second chance in life. They are committed to their roles of pleasure-givers and aspire to be number one on the popularity rankings. However all good things come to an end. An unexpected circumstance changes the destinies of the entire group forever. The bonds that were once unshakeable turn out to be brittle.  

Tea Friends is ultimately an investigation into sentimental lifelong commitments that go astray. Friendships, just like romantic partnerships, can be shattered by betrayal and egotism. Human connections are as fragile as necessary to existence.

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This further explains the success of Mana’s business, since it allows — through sex of course — the forgotten elderly to feel considered and alive.

Bunji Sotoyama presents a parable that embraces all nations and people and their need for connection. The feeling of home, for any culture, comes when someone expresses care, whether through a cup of tea, a moment of promiscuity, or both.

In fact, even though the film is set in Japan, the lyrics to the American song, Tea For Two — by Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar, part of the musical No, No, Nanette — would have been incredibly fitting: “I’m discontented with homes that are rented so I have invented my own. Darling this place is a lover’s oasis where life’s weary chase is unknown. Far from the cry of the city, where flowers pretty caress the streams, Cozy to hide in, to love side-by-side in. Don’t let it abide in my dreams. Picture you upon my knee, Just tea for two and two for tea, Me for you and you for me alone…

Final Grade: B

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