Friday, August 02, 2013

AAIFF ’13: Touch of the Light

Here’s something a little different: a film about college-aged kids, who actually have talent and are not compulsively bedding one another.  Granted, they have confidence issues, but their platonic friendship might just make all the difference in Chang Jung-chi’s Touch of the Light (trailer here), which screens tomorrow during the 2013 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Essentially, this is Huang Yu-siang’s real life story, starring the blind piano prodigy as himself, or a namesake very much like him.  The young musician leaves his home in the countryside for the first time ever to enroll in a Taipei music school.  His classmates are mostly stuck-up creeps, but his comic relief roommate Ching is a decent chap. However, Xiao Jie is something else entirely.  A chance meeting with the tea delivery girl nursing a broken heart leads to a deeply rewarding friendship.  Perhaps, she will finally start pursuing her dancing dreams and he will begin entering music competitions again.

Right, you’re probably starting to feel nauseous right now, but Touch is nowhere near as cloying or manipulative as all that probably sounds. Surprisingly, the film takes romance entirely off the table (aside from the unsubtle questions from Huang’s little sister, played by the scene-stealing Wu Ya-jo).  Instead, Chang focuses on the mutual support each gets from the other, while also celebrating the contribution of their dedicated teachers.  Taiwan’s preeminent modern dancer Hsu Fang-yi does the honors for Xiao Jie, absolutely illuminating the screen in the process.

Throughout Touch, Chang’s restraint is admirable.  It has a gauzy, lyrical vibe, but the narrative is pretty well grounded in reality.  The film is more about the daily carrying-on in pursuit of one’s goals than triumphant crescendos.  Obviously, Huang is perfectly believable as himself.  However, the Taiwanese-French Sandrine Pinna is a far more magnetic presence on-screen.  Then again, he is a better pianist than she is a dancer, so maybe it all evens out.  Regardless, their easy, relaxed chemistry together is quite appealing.  Perhaps the official mom of the year’s AAIFF, actress-turned-producer Lee Lieh (previously seen in Together) also gives a wonderfully understating but acutely touching performance as Huang’s protective mother.

“Presented” Oprah-style by Wong Kar-wai and produced by his company, Touch combines art-house quality performances with a mainstream audience-friendly narrative. It is easy to see why Taiwan submitted it as their official Foreign Language Oscar contender last year. Warm and inviting but not quite as by-the-numbers predictable as one might expect, Touch of the Light is recommended for those who enjoy gifted-youth dramas.  It screens tomorrow (8/3) at the Asia Society, as this year’s AAIFF enters the home stretch.