The Touch (HK 2002)

Rating: **
Review Date: 3/9/03
Producer: Michelle Yeoh
Director: Peter Pau
Music: Basil Poledouris
Action Choreography: Philip Kwok
Cast: Michelle Yeoh, Ben Chaplin, Brandon Chang, Kenneth Tsang

Ooh, ouch. Action diva Michelle Yeoh's first film as writer, producer, and star falls victim to unimpressive stunt work, painfully bad digital effects, disruptive editing, absurd characters, poor acting, and unbelievably bad dialog. It's unfortunate, because there's a very interesting story buried within the film, that yearns for the globe-trotting action treatment of films like "Armour Of God 2: Operation Condor" (1991) and "The Legend Of Wisely" (1986). Instead of a frantic, over-the-top, action tour-de-force, "The Touch" is marred by so many uninteresting visual effects and horrible dialog that it's painful to watch. Even Ms. Yeoh can't bring any life or feeling to the action sequences, which seem like they belong in an episode of "Power Rangers" or similar fare. The only bright spots in the film are a wonderfully stirring music score by Basil Poledouris ("Conan The Barbarian" (1981) ) and some stunningly beautiful location shooting in China and Tibet.

But let's get back to the story. Buddhist legend tells of a Sharira that is the essence of a true holy man, that when found, will either benefit or doom mankind. An ancient family of Chinese acrobats are custodian to one of the cryptic keys to the puzzle of the Sharira, and naturally a very nasty villain named Karl wants the Sharira for himself to grant him eternal life or something. Through a silly sequence of events, the leader of the circus troupe, Yin (Michelle Yeoh), receives a sacred relic that was stolen from Karl and the hunt for the Sharira is on. Much stupidity ensues (including a god-awful romantic sub-plot), finally leading to a mind-numbingly dull acrobatic battle in a Buddhist shrine engulfed in digital flame.

Apart from the often embarrassing visual effects and excruciatingly bad dialog, the biggest disappointment in the film is with the fight choreography. Drop-frame editing (which mercifully went out of style in the early 80's) is excessively used to quicken the pace of the action sequences, but only succeeds in making them look like they're staged badly. Undercranking would have worked much better for this film. The gratuitous wire stunts are also very poor, disrupting the flow of the action sequences and bringing unwanted attention to themselves.

And that's really the operative word for the film: gratuitous. Most of my knee-jerk negative reaction to this film is that most of it is completely unnecessary and could have been handled much better using simple, traditional, straight forward storytelling. I'm also tired of seeing special effects abused to the point where the human element and any sort of tension are completely missing. A prime example is the horse performing an impossible jump across a gaping chasm. It comes off as forced and hokey, trying to instill a sense of wonder and bravura, but instead it breaks the suspension of disbelief and makes us lose faith that the actors can actually do anything unaided. I think the root of the problem is that the film wants you to believe - not in the characters or the power of the Sharira, but in the excessively overwrought special effects. Making that the focus of the film is the film's fatal flaw, and as I've said before, effects should be used to enhance the story, not replace it. If they had cut their enormous budget in half and stuck to old school action/adventure filmmaking instead of digital sensationalism, the film could have seriously competed with its "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (1981) brethren. As it is, it has no heart and soul. Following an unfortunate recent trend in Hong Kong cinema, "The Touch" is disappointing cross-cultural fare aimed squarely at the undiscerning international mainstream.