Aleksandra Szczepanowska and Yuan Jiangyi in Touch (Photo: Jungle Cat Productions)
★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Aleksandra Szczepanowska
STARS Aleksandra Szczepanowska, Yang Jun
The erotic melodrama-cum-psychological thriller Touch centers on a woman who is in touch with her own desires but out of touch when it comes to providing her paramour with what he needs.
Fei Fei (Aleksandra Szczepanowska, also the film’s writer, director, and producer) is a Western white woman married to enigmatic Chinese businessman Zhang Hua (Yang Jun). Although she has lived all over the world, Fei Fei (we never learn her birth name, as her husband picked out her Chinese name and that is how she is exclusively known) understandably now seeks permanent residency status in China, since that’s where she plans to continue living with her husband and their young son Mo Mo (Beckhan). Bureaucratic red tape isn’t making the switch easy, and she bristles when it appears that the influential Zhang Hua won’t lift a finger to help her.
Clearly, this is a strained marriage, so it’s not surprising when Fei Fei is stirred by a young man who seems to be studying her in the park. She follows him to his place of employment and discovers that he’s a blind masseur at a massage parlor populated solely by blind masseurs. Fei Fei learns that his name is Bai Yu (Yuan Jiangyi) and immediately books a session with him. Despite his blindness, it turns out he was studying her in the park, not with his eyes but with his other senses, particularly smell (he notes that only European women wear so much perfume).
Fei Fei and Bai Yu embark on a torrid affair, but it quickly becomes clear that their intentions and desires are not on equal footing. A deeply lonely individual, Bai Yu falls hard for Fei Fei and wants to remain with her. For her part, Fei Fei figures she shouldn’t continue to risk her marriage for these clandestine thrills and abruptly breaks it off, a move that infuriates Bai Yu.
Clearly influenced by the oeuvre of Wong Kar Wei (most titles of which are reviewed here), Szczepanowska has crafted a film that is similar in the manner in which heated emotions are unleashed in the midst of a visually cool palette. If Szczepanowska isn’t quite as successful as Wong, that’s largely because her characters may be just as complicated but aren’t as neatly delineated. Touch is the sort of movie that leans too heavily on hallucinations and dream sequences in an effort to fake out the viewer, but such an approach doesn’t feel completely organic for a film that’s otherwise honest in how it approaches each character’s feelings and flaws. The decision to turn Bai Yu into a one-note stalker is also lamentable — it’s a straight Hollywood pivot, and one almost expects to hear Bai Yu parrot Glenn Close by declaring, “I’m not going to be ignored, Fei Fei!”
Still, Touch is quite assured in most areas, with some interesting dynamics particularly at play in the relationship between the married couple. As played by Yang Jun, Zhang Hua comes across as a sexist lout much of the time, yet there are other moments when his behavior catches us off guard. As for Szczepanowska, she delivers a strong and richly textured performance in the central role, and it’s equally impressive to learn that she was the first Western woman to shoot an independent film in the People’s Republic of China.
(Touch is available exclusively on Amazon Prime for rental or purchase.)