She is a woman without a country, married to a man with a past.
And their troubled marriage – and her desperate, dangerous search for something more – will lead her down a risky path and into a deadly affair in Touch.
Stripped to its essentials –erotic-thriller style and neo-noir fatalism — the movie sounds familiar. It’s anything but. Not only is it a one-woman show – produced, directed, written by and starring Aleksandra Szczepanowska — it’s set in China, and told in Mandarin.
Oh, and the heroine’s affair is with a blind masseur.
It almost sounds like a movie MadLib, peculiar details inserted at random. Yet Touch weaves most of its disparate threads together, making its offbeat twists and turns eventually feel, if not completely plausible, almost inevitable.
Szczepanowska plays Fei Fei, a white woman married to Yang Jun’s Zhang Hua, a mysterious – and undoubtedly shady – businessman. But it’s not a union of equals. Sexist and controlling – he’s the one who picked out her Chinese name — he sees not an equal, but a trophy.
So one day Fei Fei decides to step off the shelf. And wandering into a “blind massage parlor” – yes, this is a thing in China – she puts herself in the hands, and soon under the spell, of a sightless young masseur named Bai Yu (Yuan Jiangwei).
Fans of sexy genre movies can guess what’s coming next – steamy trysts, growing obsessions, and bursts of violence leading to the eventual, inevitable punishment (no matter how modern the movie, female adulterers rarely get away clean).
But there are still surprises in how Szczepanowska tells her story. The film’s sound design is full of ominous echoes, its cinematography awash in primary colors or obscured in soft focus. Even when Fei Fei isn’t having a nightmare – and the film is interrupted by several – it feels like a dream.
That unreality can get a little frustrating at times. How exactly did this woman end up in this unnamed Chinese city (after moving all over the world)? How did she and Zhang meet, and how did he make all that money? And why does she teach a tango class?
Movies don’t need to spell everything out, but when they ask us to accept a multitude of eccentric details, it’s helpful when they throw us one or two simple facts, just to keep things rooted in reality.
Particularly when they’re about to get strange – which Touch increasingly does.
Still, with its hypnotic, romantic visuals – the director counts Wong Kar-wai among her influences – the movie carries us along. Helping, too, are the skilled performances, particularly that of Szczepanowska, whose icy elegance can’t quite conceal the fire underneath.
Odd, even implausible, Touch asks a lot of audiences. But, like Fei Fei, it’s tempting to surrender.