Touch (2020)

In the opening scene of Touch, Fei Fei (Aleksandra Szczepanowska) is at a police station, discussing – with mounting frustration – the bureaucratic hurdles to her acquisition of Permanent Residency. Fei Fei may be dressed in an elegant cheongsam, she may be fluent in Cantonese, she may be married to the wealthy Zhang Hua (Jun Yang) with whom she has a young son, Mo Mo (Beckhan) and who is pressuring her to have another baby, and she may even have changed her real European name for one that sounds more appropriate to the setting where she has been living and working for 15 years. Yet this well-travelled woman of the world will never pass for Chinese, officially does not fit in, and is at constant low-level risk of deportation. 

In this prologue, it is Fei Fei’s identity – all the documentation that proves who she is and where she has come from – that is explicitly in question, and found wanting. “I get restless, understand?” Fei Fei implores the police woman (Liu Yuqiao), “I need China to be my permanent home more than anything.” But until all her paperwork is in place and approved, and she meets a set of ever-changing criteria, her pleas fall on deaf ears, and her sense of insecurity – of not belonging – remains. Her own husband’s reluctance to intervene, despite his wealth and influence, only adds to her alienation, as she starts wondering how strong the foundations of their marriage really are.  

“I understand that in China, we don’t even shake hands hello,” Fei Fei tells her tango class. “We certainly don’t touch strangers. But you can’t dance the tango without touching.” These words express both Fei Fei’s cultural acclimatisation, and her estrangement. For even as she longs for proximity and intimacy, she is adrift, out of touch both with the land she would like to call home, and with herself. Apparently indifferent, Zhang Hua is furtive and keeps Fei Fei at a distance, while very much calling the shots and regarding domestic authority as his male prerogative. Fei Fei is caught between two worlds in the same way that her son, at an inchoate age, is undefined in gender. Fei Fei feels insubstantial, unloved, invisible – and so, when a stranger stops for a moment in front of her as she sits alone on a park bench, for the first time in a while Fei Fei feels seen. Which is ironic, given that the young man, Bai Yu (Yuan Jiangwei), is blind. Yet as a masseur, he too is engaged in a profession that requires touching, and Fei Fei, intrigued by this man who notices everything about her, cannot wait to feel his hands on her.

Bai Yu also feels uprooted, abandoned and unloved, and so these two isolated figures are drawn together into an illicit relationship whose very improbability will become increasingly topicalised. To Fei Fei, Bai Yu is both an attentive lover and a fantasy of otherness who mirrors her own outsider status. Yet when, momentarily seeing sense, Fei Fei calls off the entanglement before it can ruin her marriage, one – or perhaps both – of the lovers refuses to let go of the fancy. At this point, as the infatuated, jilted Bai Yu refuses to leave his ex alone, invading her home and endangering not just Fei Fei, but her husband and child as well, Touch veers violently from a portrait of a woman suffering an identity crisis to a stalker scenario in the mould of Adrian Lyne’s erotic thriller Fatal Attraction (1987).

Fei Fei (Aleksandra Szczepanowska) with her son Mo Mo (Beckhan)

Or does it? For in her feature debut as writer/director, star Szczepanowska deftly manipulates familiar ‘bunny boiler’ tropes to capture a character’s confusion, while also confounding – indeed blinding – the viewer to the real psychodrama unfolding. In the end, as the disoriented Fei Fei becomes more and more baffled by her conflicting desires and disaffections, Touch makes her blurry interiority both visible and tangible, revealing her as a Lynchian woman in trouble, in crisis and in fugue. So this is a mystery wrapped in a thriller, where a dispossessed character, in trying to find herself, imagines – and perhaps also ultimately acts – in an extreme way that leaves her tragically, maybe even permanently, lost and homeless. 

strap: In Aleksandra Szczepanowska’s assured feature debut, an affair with a blind masseur causes a European woman, alienated in China, to lose her grip on her identity

© Anton Bitel