Touch marks an interesting milestone, as writer, director, and lead actress Aleksandra Szczepanowska becomes the first Western woman to make an independent film in China, told entirely in Mandarin and Cantonese. The challenge is a unique one, but Szczepanowska, to her credit, does not attempt to simply provide a Western perspective on China, but to tell a story that is largely based in cultural tensions and the experience of assimilation and Otherness.
Touch tells the story of Fei Fei (Szczepanowska), a Polish dance instructor married to Chinese businessman Zhang Hua (Yang Jun). Despite having lived in China for fifteen years and having a son with a Chinese national, Fei Fei struggles to get a permanent visa that will allow her to remain in her adopted country. In the midst of this, her marriage is on shaky ground, as her husband vanishes for days at a time and refuses to explain where he’s going or with whom he’s meeting, even going so far as to resist Fei Fei’s efforts to gain a permanent visa. Fei Fei begins an intense affair with blind masseur Bai Yu (Yuan Jiangwei), but their initial passionate connection soon gives way to something far darker.
Touch takes on a number of different issues, with varying success. The strains of a patriarchal culture and Fei Fei’s outsider-ness likewise strain her marriage, as the pair argue about the best way to manage their son and Fei Fei chafes at being excluded from her husband’s confidences. Her affair with Bai Yu at first seems an escape from the very non-tactile nature of the upper echelons of Chinese society. Their relationship begins, as the film’s title suggests, with touch—it’s permissible for a masseur to put his hands on a married woman, and Bai Yu’s blindness and profession means that he learns and sees through his fingers. These elements are fascinating and explored well in the first half of the film, telling a fairly standard but nonetheless intriguing story of a woman hungering for human connection.
Fei Fei’s foreignness complicates things—she’s accepted by her adopted country, but still feels an outsider to it, her husband remarking on her foreignness when she invades masculine spaces or behaves in a way he deems inappropriate. There’s no such complication in her relationship with Bai Yu, and the pair connect as semi-outsiders—her because she’s foreign, him because he’s blind. She encounters him first in a park, where he immediately identifies her as foreign based on the odor of her lipstick, and then she pursues him to the massage parlor, insisting that he massage her despite him not accepting female clients. Their connection builds to the point of obsessiveness.
The second half of the film then begins to muddle the plot arc, adding in elements of a thriller that somewhat jar with the initial set up. Much of this works, though the increasing obsessiveness of the relationship highlights an inherent problem in the narrative—there’s no way, it seems, to tell a story about adultery without it turning into a thriller. As a result, Touch is not entirely successful in its project, relying increasingly on issues of perception via the use of apparent dream sequences and fuzzy focus that question the reliability of the camera, but never completely pay off.
If Touch doesn’t completely succeed, it still manages to be an interesting exercise, a film embedded in two different cultures and dealing with fascinating questions of assimilation and Otherness, of love and sex and trust. It’s an exceptional effort, and should be seen, both for what it attempts and in the ways it does, undoubtedly, succeed.
Touch debuted theatrically at the end of May and is now available on Amazon Prime.