The gold rush of potential Chinese/US productions that was promised seems to be fizzling out amidst the global distrust of the ongoing pandemic circa 2021; the Chinese box-office seems to be rebounding, but the top locally-made films often seem to lose something in the translation from the fantasy genre. What modern life is like in China is something of an uncharted territory as far as today’s film-makers are concerned; step forward writer, director, producer and star Aleksandra Szczepanowska with her debut feature, shot in the province of Beidaihe, an accomplished romantic thriller which lifts the curtain on what life is like, at least through the eyes of an outsider.
We start in a familiar burocratic situation; Fei Fei (Szczepanowska) is a Westerner who has married a successful businessman, but feels closed off from her partner’s success. She hopes to be recognised as a citizen via marriage, but there’s something wrong with this picture, and the brittle nature of Fei Fei’s life proves fragile to the touch of a blind masseur Bai Yu (Jiangwei Yuan). The two begin an affair, one which initially feels liberating for Fei Fei, but not everything which promises liberation delivers…
Fei Fei suffers from a lack of status; she aspires to being a “High Value Individual’, a title which is denied to her. To some extent this explains her dalliance with the similarly side-lined Bai Yu in a Douglas Sirk-ian way, but Szczepanowska creates a more complex character than that. A telling scene shows her cutting her own hair in sympathy with a child upset to have their locks shorn; Fei Fei has an empathetic streak, which proves problematic when the world around her turns toxic.
Although the resolution is reassuringly satisfying in dramatic terms for Western audiences, Touch is quite an exotic story; the minutiae of Fei Fei’s life might be mundane to her, but certainly looks fresh to Western eyes. With a strong female lead and an unsentimental, well-told story that generally shirks melodrama, Touch is an unusual, intense film that is easy to recommend for those keen to hear fresh cinematic voices. NYC-based Szczepanowska may well be the first Western woman to shoot an indie in China, and Touch is an unusual proposition that lifts a cultural veil as to how Chinese society may well have similar issues of male domination to the West.
Touch can be viewed in cinemas and online via Laemmle Virtual Theaters in the US from Friday 28th May 2021. Thanks to Bunker 15 for advance access. Link and trailer below.