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“Touch of the Light” sees Taiwanese director Chang Jung Chi adapting his 2008 award winning short “The End of the Tunnel” into a full length feature, produced by Wong Kar Wai’s Jet Tone Films. Based on a true story, the film follows the real life experiences of piano prodigy Huang Yu Siang, here played by himself, with award winning French-Taiwanese actress Sandrine Pinna, also known as Chang Yung Yung (“Miao Miao”) in the female lead role, both of whom featured in the original short. The film was a big hit with the critics, winning Best New Director for Chang at the Golden Horse Awards, as well as being selected for Taiwan’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 85th Academy Awards.
The film begins with Huang Yu Hsiang preparing to leave the small town where he lives with his parents to study music at a university in the big city, a move which will see himself on his own for the first time. Though he quickly makes friends, including his jovial roommate Ching (Hsieh Kan Chun), his new environment and classroom life takes a lot of getting used to, as he struggles to find recognition for his piano playing talents on his own terms. One day he meets a young woman delivering drinks called Jie (Sandrine Pinna), who desperately wants to train as a dancer but has been held back by family difficulties. The two connect immediately, and start to inspire each other to overcome obstacles and fulfil their dreams.
The best thing about “Touch of the Light” is that it’s really not the film you expect it to be, being far from the sentimentalist, disability of the week melodrama that its premise suggests. It doesn’t take long to realise this, with Huang quickly making friends at the university and fitting in well with campus life, with only a few instances of minor discrimination. As such, the film from early on treats his blindness as a simple, unavoidable fact of his life, much as he does himself, and thankfully avoids cheap stabs at sympathy. This immediately, and very pleasingly, sets the narrative off in a different direction to the usual kind of struggle against cruel society type tale, Huang instead simply trying to succeed in his studies and to do what he loves doing without people giving him advantages for being blind. With Huang very impressive in the often awkward situation of playing himself, he’s a likeable, hardworking and generally optimistic fellow, and his quiet determination wins the viewer over, making his story engaging and entertaining.
Jie is similarly an interesting character, and though her journey is somewhat more straightforward, it’s nevertheless every bit as involving. An outwardly bad-tempered young woman who seems to be unhappy with her lot in life, the script successfully delves into her past and character as the film goes on, and watching her gradually, hesitantly flourish makes for very rewarding viewing. This is mostly down to the excellent turn by Sandrine Pinna, and it’s easy to see why she has emerged as one of Taiwan’s most praised young actresses, having won awards and nominations for not only “Touch of the Light”, but her previous two films “Miao Miao” and “Yang Yang”.
Though the film is basically predictable, Chang still manages to steer clear of most clichés, most notably in the way that Huang and Jie’s relationship develops. Rather than the usual romance or anything forced, the film instead simply treats them as two kindred souls who come together to help and support each other. This isn’t to say that the film denies any possibility of future romance, and there’s an obvious and very enjoyable chemistry between the two, made all the more effective for not being forced. This gives the film a very warm and gently humanistic feel, complimented by Chang’s unobtrusive visual style, the director aiming for an appropriately bright and hazy look. Though the pace is slow, the film comes across as grounded and thoughtful, and it keeps the viewer engrossed throughout, and while it’s mercifully free of needless subplots, there’s always something going on.
“Touch of the Light” definitely has a lot to offer, and marks a very solid debut indeed for Chang Jung Chi. Well worth all of the praise and awards it has garnered to date, it’s an appealing and moving film, bolstered by two fantastic central performances and a refusal to fall back on the same old clichés of the form.
Rong-ji Chang (director) / Nyssa Li (screenplay)
CAST: Yu-Siang Huang … Himself
Sandrine Pinna … Xiao Jie