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Review: 'Red Obsession' takes on China and the Bordeaux mania

ChinaRussell Crowe

Documentaries by their nature are prisoners of their moment in time. If they are fortunate, as the makers of "Red Obsession" are, that moment, even if it's brief, will be able to hold our interest.

"Red Obsession," as it turns out, is a title that references two specific situations. One is the passion wine lovers worldwide have for the great Bordeaux reds, premier cru or first-growth vineyards such as Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Lafite Rothschild. The second is what happens when those wines catch the attention of the moneyed classes of that populous land once known to headline writers everywhere as Red China.

Though it's all beautifully photographed by Lee Pulbrook and Steve Arnold, narrated by Russell Crowe and bookended by the potent song duo of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" and Peggy Lee's "Fever," the "ain't wine grand" sections of "Red Obsession" are its weakest part.

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Directed by Warwick Ross and David Roach, "Red Obsession" starts out as an unabashed valentine to those classic reds. A nonstop parade of chateau owners, wine critics and hard-core oenophiles outdo each other in mythologizing the place. By the time someone insists "wine is a work of art you can drink," the enthusiasts in "Sideways" come off as light hitters.

Once this frenzy of worship dies down, "Red Obsession" gains interest as it delineates how the production and sale of first-growth Bordeaux has become the biggest of businesses and how the Chinese may or may not fit into the picture.

Since 1982, we're told, the price of these wines has outperformed every financial index, and for the last 10 years the prices of Bordeaux have risen more than 1,000%. Is it any wonder that this stuff has become way too expensive to drink and is now largely purchased for investment?

Great vintage years usually occur once every two decades, but as "Red Obsession" gets down to business an unusual situation is taking place. Though the 2009 wines were one of those great vintages, it seems like the 2010, at least as indicated by the early spring en primeur tasting events, will be just as good.

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This embarrassment of riches comes at a time when the Americans, the traditional buyers of Bordeaux for the last 30 years, are retreating from the market because of the depredations of the financial collapse. What to do?

Fortunately for the chateaux owners, China's wealth and interest in wine are rising at the same time, and it is in the exploration of this phenomenon that "Red Obsession" hits its stride.

It's generally known that there's a lot of money in China, but "Red Obsession" gets specific. There are 271 known U.S.-dollar billionaires there, and likely just as many unknown ones, giving it more billionaires than even the U.S.

China is also a country that has begun to revere wine, especially Bordeaux, as an exotic status symbol, a situation the vineyards are happy to exploit: Chateau Margaux, for instance, decides to sponsor the Miss China Universe contest.

What "Red Obsession" documents is the brief moment when, with the wineries' encouragement, China went mad for these wines. Billionaire Peter Tseng, the world's largest manufacturer of sex toys ("where there is a human being, there is our product"), spends millions of dollars on wine, and others are not far behind, building their own replica French villages and even starting their own wineries.

Though the French producers hoped this craze would last forever, a coda to "Red Obsession" reveals that the bubble burst in 2012, when the quality of the wine declined. It was fascinating while it lasted, however, and this film records it all.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Red Obsession'

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes

Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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