By Maribeth Thueson, NRFTW Contributor
The couples stalk down the dance floor, their bodies close together, backs arched, hips twisting, legs tangling, in perfect unison. There’s no dance more thrilling than the tango, none more evocative of the sexual and emotional relationship between a couple. They communicate their moves to each other so that they act as one, and to do so, they touch.
Written and directed by Aleksandra Szczpanowska, who also stars in the film, Touch is a thriller about otherness. Szczepanowska, who was born in Poland and raised in the U.S., also lived in China and speaks Mandarin fluently. In her experience, even a Westerner who speaks the language and knows the culture will never be fully accepted in China, and she used that knowledge to inform the emotions of her character, Fei Fei.
Fei Fei is a white Westerner who lives with her Chinese husband, Zhang Hua, and their small son, Mo Mo, in an enclave of the rich in a resort town in China. Fei Fei is a dance teacher, specializing in the tango. “I understand that in China we don’t even shake hands hello. We certainly don’t touch strangers,” she tells her students. “But you can’t dance the tango without touching.”
But Fei Fei and her husband aren’t touching. Their house is a mansion, full of corridors and rooms, large enough to get lost in, and fenced off from the surrounding properties and the road. She has difficulty fitting in with his friends, committing small breaches of etiquette. Instead of supporting her, her husband tells her to behave herself. Despite living in China for 15 years, she is still there on a visitor visa which must be renewed yearly. When she attempts to get permanent resident status, she encounters bureaucratic obstacles, and he refuses to help her.
Isolated and resenting her husband, she meets a blind masseur, Bai Yu. “Blind massage” is apparently a thing in China, the idea being that a blind person has a superior sense of touch and will therefore give a superior massage. Fei Fei is so starved for physical touch and emotional connection that she begins an affair with Bai Yu.
If Touch had continued to explore the theme of otherness and what it’s like for a Westerner, especially a woman, to live in China, it would have been a nice, quiet relationship film. But Szczepanowska goes further, increasing the pressure on the characters until their anxieties take over. When Fei Fei realizes that maybe the affair isn’t such a good idea and draws away from Bai Yu, he is so hurt by her defection that his pain explodes out of him, first in a wild whirl and then with cold calculation, and the film veers into thriller territory, going full Fatal Attraction.
As Fei Fei’s mental state deteriorates, the hand-held camera swirls dizzily, leaving us to guess what is real and what she’s imagining. The visuals are cold, from the tile floors of the mansion to the white sheets on the massage table to a white tissue Bai Yu gives Fei Fei to remove her red lipstick. There are images throughout of couples dancing, contrasting with the lack of connection that the main characters feel. The music is spare and eerie. It all adds up to an atmosphere of suspense and uncertainty that supports the build to a harrowing finish.
Touch is Szczepanowska’s first feature film, and it is an impressive debut, especially considering all the hats she was wearing. It won Best Screenplay at the Beloit International Film Festival, and Best Feature Film at the Brazil International Monthly Independent Film Festival. Szczepanowska is a filmmaker to keep your eye on.
Touch is screening tonight at the Winter Film Awards in New York City.