Can the touching of a child’s genitals by a stranger ever be excused? Lulu Wang (Posthumous, The Farewell) weaves cultural disconnect with intergenerational family dynamics to find an answer to this controversial question in her compelling short Touch. Based on a true story, the 15 minute drama makes for a powerful but uncomfortable watch, not entirely because of the nature of the act itself, but also because against all odds, the film resonates. Wang masterfully balances conflicting emotions, with compassion tipping the scales, and rather than providing answers, she forces more difficult questions to surface as a result.
Touch tells the story of Chen – an elderly, hard-working, Taiwanian man living in the US with his wife and son. One day, he makes an unintentional, yet unforgivable mistake in a public restroom, with devastating consequences for him and his family. Despite his harmless intentions, Chen struggles with the legal system and his son, to make the context of his behaviour understood.
Touch explores the cultural gap between father and son, whilst examining the boundaries in the American judicial system. In an unusual move, Wang made Touch after completing her feature debut Posthumous. The short then paved the way to her hugely popular second feature The Farewell, a bittersweet comedy based on the director’s personal life, which explores similar themes.
“I think there’s the sense, or myth, that as a filmmaker you always have to go bigger, bigger, bigger. For me, I really wanted to make something smaller and take risks and be able to figure out my voice. Touch allowed me to play with that and start to tell a story that was not black and white; it was full of complicated nuances that left people asking questions.” – Wang shared in an interview for Film Independent.
These nuances are key in what makes Touch resonate with the audience. Crafting ambiguity with a subject like child molestation isn’t easy, but Wang manages to do it, and with some to spare. She builds on our preconception that the elderly are usually well-meaning and harmless, and reinforces her viewpoint by the way she portrays Chen in the film.
At the very start, she establishes her main character as a kind and sweet-natured old man. Even as he commits the crime in the restroom, before we learn the reasons behind his actions, we sympathise and likely put his wrongdoing down to naivety and cultural ignorance. Watching the scene and its immediate aftermath, I couldn’t help but compare Chen to my grandad who was prone to making largely inappropriate, and to be frank, at times downright racist comments, which I always justified because of his age and upbringing. To make it even harder not to empathise with Chen, we later discover that he was a victim of his own personal trauma, and carried the burden of shame all his life.
What’s even more interesting, are the family dynamics and how each member deals with the incident. Meifeng, Chen’s wife, is instantly willing to accept the plea deal, resigning to the fact that they will always be seen as immigrants, or outsiders, and therefore would stand no chance in fighting against the legal system, regardless of her husband’s innocence. On the other hand, we have Chen’s son, David, who has lived most of his adult life in the US, and is more concerned with how his father pleading guilty will affect him. He is ashamed of his parents, which, his mother tells him, makes him American.
This push and pull between blood and culture ties will feel very familiar to anyone living in a different country to where they were born. One could argue that Wang was biased, and weighed in too heavily in her character’s favour, and that the film would have benefitted if the ambiguity stakes had been raised, perhaps by showing how the incident affected the American boy’s family too. That would’ve at least doubled the length of the film, however, and the almost instantaneous payoff the short delivers would’ve been lost. Wang picked a side and fought her case for it, and the result is a remarkably authentic and relatable exercise in balance – between roots and identity, pride and shame, right and wrong.