By Yun-hua Chen.
Drifting between numerous subject matters, genres, emotions, cultures, the film proves how too many ingredients can spoil a dish as well as a film.”
Touch, the directorial debut of Aleksandra Szczepanowska, is an audacious attempt to mix genres and defy cultural barriers. This one-woman show, where she directed, wrote the script, performed as the main lead and worked as a producer and executive producer, depicts a Caucasian woman Fei Fei, who lives in China with her wealthy Chinese husband and detests her native land for some unclarified reasons. She falls in love with a Chinese blind masseur Bai Yu whom she meets in a park by chance, and from there she enters an emotional downward spiral.
An ambitious film, certainly. At times it is reminiscent of Pillow Book with reverse gender roles, and other times it feels like Crazy Rich Asians meeting Madame Bovary and Blind Massage, but it is also nothing like them at all. Contrary to what the title might suggest, the passion between Fei Fei and Bai Yu is ignited from Fei Fei’s strong perfume, which only “Westerners” would use according to Bai Yu. As their affair evolves into sequences of eroticism and frenzy, the boundaries between reality and fantasy are blurred, and sanity and insanity intertwined.
Some technical imperfections are to be expected in a debut film; color contrast is imbalanced, connections between shots stiff and unorganic, and the salad bowl of genres gratuious. Whereas the characters lack genuine motives for doing what they do, the sparkles in the extramarital affair are not discernible through audial and visual means. As much as it remains unclear how Fei Fei’s aloof husband is suddenly transformed from a cruel and almost abusive man to someone who is able to declares his love freely, it is equally puzzling how Fei Fei’s love affair takes a drastic turn into a thriller and horror.
Aleksandra Szczepanowska being the only professional actress, the rest of the cast don’t have other film credits under their belt. Whereas Szczepanowska overperforms in a language which is not her native tongue, supporting actors underperform or simply strike a jarring note. Sometimes camera is shaky or covered by a foggy layer for no apparent narrative-driven reasons. Is the use of soft focus a sign that the images are a fantasy? Or are they there just to mislead our understanding of the story? In the end of the day, does all this really matter?
What is even more troubling is that in a film which foregrounds its intercultural interface,
the dichotomy between East and West does not reach much further than clichéd symbols and cultural tokens. The Westerner teaches Tango and uses strong perfume, whereas the Easterners write calligraphy, take herbal medicine and practice cupping therapy and acupuncture. The Chinese husband is patriarchal und uncommunicative, whereas the Chinese lover is obsessed. At the same time, China is romanticized into a place with only first world problems; wealthy people are cultured and sophisticated, government officials at the Foreign Affairs Bureau are friendly and understanding, and blind masseurs have no other trouble in life apart from the love triangle which he is involved in. It is a film which is set in China but has nothing to do with China; the storyline engages with particular groups in the Chinese society, the mega-rich and the visually challenged, but the film does not look at their real faces at all. It explicitly departs from realism, but also not fantastical enough to be a fantasy. The fact that it is based on the perspective of a Caucasian Western woman who has some understanding of Chinese language and culture and wears Qipao on a regular basis does not stop the film from projecting the orientalist gaze, which not only exoticizes the East but also sexualizes the visually impaired. Mid-way through the film, in a visually exaggerated manner, one of the sinicized Western woman’s worst nightmares is portrayed as having her body stuck with a lot of needles during a therapy session of acupuncture.
At the beginning of the film, the reverse scenario of visa application, when a Westerner puts a lot of efforts to be granted permanent residence in China, shows some potential of a culturally aware and self-mocking film, but in the end it neither pushes the narrative forward nor opens up any discussion on borders, unequal geopolitical power struggle, difficulties as expatriates in China, and possible discrimination against intercultural couples. The same goes for the film’s gender-related moments. Drifting between numerous subject matters, genres, emotions, cultures, the film proves how too many ingredients can spoil a dish as well as a film.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.