Published Sep 26, 2013Given the ever-increasing popularity of wine, there's an implicit rationale for a documentarian to attempt to make a compelling film on the subject. 2005 saw Mondovino, while in 2012, SOMM made the rounds on the festival circuit; both films garnered attention from wine enthusiasts, but didn't have much appeal to a broad audience. Directors David Roach and Warwick Ross opted to tackle the subject from a different angle with Red Obsession, hinting at the shift in focus with the rather coy, titular play on words.
The film commences with the camera slowly panning around the cellars of Chateau Co d'Estournel while "You Put A Spell On Me" plays. It slowly, seductively examines the various long-standing traditions that have governed Bordeaux's world-renowned wine industry, as we see the rows of priceless barrels and endless, highly organized rooms lined up. Sweeping aerial shots of the vineyards and the plethora of Châteaux serve as a backdrop while narrator Russell Crowe's (mostly) unobtrusive voice begins to chronicle the history of the region.
Roach and Ross set their film up to suggest that viewers are about to witness a cinematic treatment of the region's traditions, charisma and romance, which are synonymous with the wine section of France. Yet, rather abruptly — about 15 minutes in — a very different side of the Bordeaux wine industry is revealed.
As the shots change from the beauty of the French countryside to show an obligatory shot of Chinese men and women doing tai-chi, amidst backdrop discussions about the investment potential of high-end wine, it becomes immediately apparent that the title, Red Obsession, isn't just a reference to the Bordeaux wines that enthral the world over.
Since America, which was traditionally the superpower purchasing wine for investment capital, is no longer a financial juggernaut, the focus is on the advent of new Chinese money making its way into the wine industry. These Chinese "nouveau riche" are demanding the very best money can buy and, for the nascent wealthy in China, the premium Bordeaux wines are signifiers of their prosperity and status among the elite. Shockingly, the wines are rarely wasted on the palate, instead being designer commodities they can show-off to their peers.
As the film progresses, we're presented with a string of talking heads, which include a full array of wine experts, winery owners and other notable members of the industry. The most fascinating interviews come from the Chinese wine collectors, underscoring the greed and absurdity that have been nurtured in their country. It's through these "success stories" that the title is amply demonstrated. One Chinese businessman, who made his fortune in the sex toy industry, boasts that he has bottles of Lafite (the most prized brand in China) on display in every room of his house, while another brags that he has the largest collection of Lafite in the world.
While the status and novelty that these Bordeaux wines give the Chinese affluent class make for an interesting exploration of the buyers and investors, the eventuality — a compounding inevitability and metaphor of greed as implicit human folly — is that the Chinese would decide they could do it better, creating brands of their own. As China continues to dominate the world's economy, their thirst for all things Western (wine included) grows. Chinese are now buying Bordeaux vineyards and exporting their premium wines back to China, while some have even taken it upon themselves to develop vineyards on Chinese soil, attempting to mimic what has been done for centuries in France.
Much is packed into Red Obsession's 75-minute runtime, shedding an interesting light on the wine industry and the nature of a Communist shift when power and money become tangible. Moreover, the doc succeeds at weaving together the artistry and greed of the Bordeaux wine industry with the need for some people to achieve status.
Some may walk away from the film having learned more about the wine industry, while others may find the hyperbolized examples of superficiality and greed — "I don't know why; I just want it" — horrifying and telling. It's a fascinating pairing, one that makes this film an engaging viewing experience. (Lion Rock)