Thursday, October 10, 2013

Review - Touch of the Light

October 10, 2013

Touch of the Light – Taiwan, 2012

A bank in Taiwan has an advertising campaign that features someone in need being ignored over and over. In one of their commercials, a man stands in the rain sneezing, and person after person declines to offer him a spot under their umbrella. In another, an elderly man is riding his bike when his hat blows off his head, and a string of passersby elect not to pick it up for him. All versions of this commercial end happily though, for at last a lone decent character offers assistance. The point of the ads seems to be that the world can be a cruel place, but if you are someone who bucks the trend and shows compassion to his or her fellow man, good things will happen. It’s a nice message, but I wonder how many people pick up on the ads’ not-so-subtle critique of society as a whole. It seems to be saying that decent people are, at the very least, in the minority, and a helping hand may not be as forthcoming as it should be.

I was reminded of this by the first part of Chang Jung-Chi’s film, Touch of the Light, which is a sweet, yet predictable film about likeable characters living in an often uncaring world. The film is about a blind musician named Huang Yu-Siang (playing himself in the film) and a young woman named Xiao Jie (Sandrine Penna), who yearns to be a dancer. The musician is from the countryside, and as the film opens, he is on his way to Taipei to study music at a university. He is hardly welcomed with open arms. Instead of being offered assistance, he is “thanked” for wasting one of his classmate’s time, and it is clear that his classmates as a whole consider him to be little more than a burden.

Jie is in an equally challenging situation. Her mother is unemployed and spends all of her time ordering things she sees advertised on a home shopping channel, her father works nights and just may have a drinking problem, and her boyfriend clearly has eyes for someone else. To top it all off, she has had to give up the thing she loves most in the world – dancing. In her mother’s eyes, it just isn’t stable enough. Given that these two characters are a musician and a dancer, it is only a matter of time before they meet and one is dancing to the other’s accompaniment.

A film like this wouldn’t be complete without a group of oddballs, for in movies, it is almost always the oddball that can accept and befriend someone who is “different.” The chief oddball in this film is Chu Tze-Ching, a kindhearted and fun-loving college student whose goal is to form a group that can rival all of the other music clubs on campus. Oddly enough, what they come up with reminded me of what was produced when Lisa became the music teacher for a day on Saved by the Bell.

Touch of the Light has its share of powerful, irresistible moments, despite its rather predictable story arc. I enjoyed seeing how Siang learns to get around, while also questioning the necessity for so many of these scenes. I also found a conversation about what Siang is looking for in a young lady interesting. His answer? A nice voice. And I was rather moved by the joy and freedom that can be seen on Jie’s face as she rediscovers her love for dancing. In addition, the conversations between Siang and Jie feel surprisingly authentic given the leap of faith that is required to think they would keep bumping into each other, and a later trip that they take together is particularly insightful, even if I wasn’t quite sure enough had happened to make such a trip entirely realistic. Finally, that the two lead characters end up where they do is not a surprise for a film of this nature, yet it is still rather moving to see two characters standing up and demanding to be noticed.

One of the most interesting aspects of Touch of the Light is the way it enables viewers to see a bit of the world as Siang sees it. Throughout the film, we see Siang developing a way of picturing the world in his head. He accomplishes this partly by using both his hearing and his memory to form a picture of his surroundings. He also uses something I’ll call substitution. In one scene that demonstrates this, Siang asks what dancing looks like, and Chu Tzu-Ching describes it as being similar to the spinning blades of a fan. This is clearly an image that Siang is familiar with, and he is able to then juxtapose the image of a person dancing over the image of a spinning fan.

The cast of Touch of the Light is particularly strong. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Lee Lieh’s portrayal of Siang’s mother. She makes it possible for the audience to see just how hard it is for a parent to step back and let a child with visual or physical impairments take care of himself. Also, I appreciated the authenticity that Hsieh Kan-chun brought to the role of Ching. He turned what could have been a stereotypical character into one with heart and feelings. However, the film clearly belongs to Sandrine Penna. She gives a truly amazing performance that will likely remind viewers a bit of Natalie Portman’s award-winning turn in Black Swan. The difference is that while Portman’s Nina Sayers was slowly driving herself mad while dancing, Penna’s character is rediscovering what it means to be alive. Showing this requires Penna to act with her entire body, for the audience must be able to see just how much dancing affects Jie and just how different she is after she starts dancing again. To say Penna nails this is an understatement, and her performance is well worthy of the recognition it received at the 2013 Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. All in all, Touch of the Light is a rather conventional film, yet it is also quite moving. It is certainly worth checking out if you have the chance. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Taiwan)

3 stars

*Touch of the Light is in Min Nan and Mandarin with English subtitles.

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