Aleksandra Szczepanowska’s Touch is a disorienting voyage into one woman’s struggle with identity and purpose. Fei Fei (Szczepanowska, who also wrote and directed the film) is a European woman living in China. She lives a life of leisure married to Zhang Hua (Jun Yang), an executive with a checkered past. They have one child, a son, who is doted on by Fei Fei and a full-time nanny.
Outside their mansion, Fei Fei works as a dance teacher — a profession that isn’t viewed as quite enough to earn her permanent residency in the country. Her husband has a habit of leaving her behind for the sake of his job and social life, appearing occasionally to either shower her with afterthought affection and / or critique her parenting of their son. When she asks him to pull strings to gain her permanent residency, he hesitates, which only increases her sense of isolation in her own home.
She soon meets Bai Yu (Jiangwei Yuan), a blind masseuse who makes her feel wanted, valued and alive again in her own skin. What starts as an affair turns dark, however, once she tries to break it off and finds herself stalked by her former lover.
This is Szczepanowska’s debut feature film, and it’s a doozy. Although the plot sounds like Fatal Attraction (and, sure, there are plot similarities), what sets it apart from other entries in the “spurned lover takes it personally” genre is that Szczepanowska is keenly focused on Fei Fei’s emotional discombobulation throughout. Although the film does lapse into quick-cut edits and ambiguous imagery, it never feels incoherent or detached from Fei Fei’s mental state. She’s a woman in a country that may not value her, lost in her marriage and her mind. Szczepanowska displays a wide range of emotions and her performance feels true. Her closeness to every aspect of the production results in an intimate focus on character and an honest, tough depiction of Fei Fei’s pain.
There are plenty of films, particularly independent films, that try to use disorientation as a crutch but fail to implement it in an grounded, character-centric way. With Touch, the audience feels Fei Fei’s journey from empty to fulfilled to guilty to terrified. It’s an engaging, and devastating, story.