"Presented" by Wong Kar Wai and directed by Chang Jung-chi, Touch of the Light
isn't an incredibly deep or adventurous movie, but I dare you to watch it and not reflect at least once, "maybe I should give some of those dreams I abandoned one more shot." This message is delivered courtesy of a blind, gifted pianist and a down-and-out aspiring dancer who strike up a sweet friendship during their first year of university and, yes, help challenge and push each other to rise above the rough hand they've been dealt.
It's based on a true story, which always tends to make feel-good movies feel even better, but Touch of the Light
actually takes its connection to reality one-step further, casting the real-life blind pianist Huang Yu-hsiang as himself. The film follows his first year attending a university to study piano. This is the first time he's left home, and more importantly, the first school he's attended which is not specifically designated for the visually impaired. When he first arrives, Chang does an incredibly effective job evoking Huang's emotional state and making us understand how frustrating it is to not be totally independent, especially in a huge environment of peers. Double especially for a huge environment of peers who are proud, insecure musicians.
Meanwhile Chieh the aspiring dancer spends all of her waking hours working to make up for her mom's compulsive spending. She's in a relationship with a jerk-off, and she spends what few free moments she has regretting the fact that she had to abandon her passion, dance, in order to sustain herself and her wreck of a family. The two eventually meet, but one reason the film works so well is that it keeps them apart for nearly half of the movie, which allows us to become more immersed in their lives and their individual states of mind. Thus, once their relationship begins, the stake mean a lot more.
The film also rises above the trappings of its genre thanks to lyrical cinematography by Dylan Doyle, and a close attention to detail in terms of how sound and touch are emphasized. Chang also, for the most part, avoids over-sentimentalizing his "grand moments." Sure, the finale leans a bit too much on the inspiring-montage cliche, but the film never feels sappy, and the piano-based score (also written by Yu-hsiang) is a welcome, understated departure from the over blown orchestral music that usually accompanies these types of films.
Also, the performances are spectacular across the board. Huang exudes a quiet, thoughtful charm and French/Taiwanese actress Sandrine Pinna has one of those rare gifts to communicate more grief or joy with her eyes than all the histrionics and laughter in the world. In short, it's a pleasure to pass the time with both of them. Lee Lieh too does impressive work as Huang's mom, taking a character that could have been cloying and melodramatic and instead investing her with strength, compassion and wisdom.
Obviously, those exclusively interested in exploring the darkest recesses of the human soul should look elsewhere. The film never gets particularly deep or emotionally complex with any of the subjects it raises, notably the confusion that the close, strictly platanoic relationship between the two seems like it would inevitably spark. But good intentions, charming leads and competent directing go a long way, and as far as inspirational movies go, I'd be surprised we get a more effective one this year.
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