Music, dance and a gentle dash of romance are the crowdpleasing ingredients of “Touch of the Light.” Starring blind young Taiwanese pianist Huang Yu-siang as himself, this partly fictionalized drama presses the right emotional buttons for general auds as the character overcomes the odds at college and befriends a dancer also striving to make her dreams come true. Though visually plain, Chang Jung-chi’s debut feature (produced by Wong Kar Wai’s Jet Tone shingle) has grossed almost $1 million locally since Sept. 21, and is Taiwan’s official foreign-lingo Oscar submission. Regional prospects appear bright; outlook elsewhere is iffy.
Expanding and updating his popular 2008 short “The End of the Tunnel,” which followed the progress of Siang (Huang) through school, Chang has delivered a very old-fashioned, ultra-formulaic yarn. The crucial elements that lift it out of the ordinary are Huang’s immensely likable and inspiring personality, and his chemistry with co-star Sandrine Pinna, also returning from “Tunnel” duty.
Having qualified for a place studying music at a Taipei university, gifted young pianist Siang is driven from his village to the big city by his mother (Lee Lieh). As sturdy and proud a parent as any lad could wish for, Mrs. Huang may be worried about her boy’s ability to cope in a “normal” environment after attending schools for the visually impaired, but her fears are quickly allayed. Following a few minor stumbles and the mildest of rejections from a couple of students, Siang quickly makes friends with roommate Ching (Hsieh Kan-chun), a roly-poly barrel of fun majoring in violin and, it seems, wacky dress sense.
The pace drags a bit in the first half as Siang settles into classes under Teacher Wang (Yin Shin) and falls in with Ching’s nerdy buddies in a band playing offbeat variations on jazz and classical music. Invigorating the proceedings is the arrival of Jie (Pinna), a beautiful Eurasian who works at a juice bar near campus and dreams of becoming a professional dancer. A meet-cute in which Jie helps Siang negotiate a busy intersection leads to friendship, which eventually includes meeting Siang’s parents and kid sister (Wu Ya-jo), an adorable moppet whose direct way of asking Jie if she’s her brother’s g.f. will melt many viewer’s hearts.
Chaste and tasteful at all times, the Siang-Jie relationship brings out the best in the film and the thesps. Discovering a collection of cassette tapes Siang has used to record sounds since childhood helps inspire Jie before an important audition. For his part, Siang’s spirits soar in the company of a sweet girl whose kindhearted attentions include guiding him through dance moves.
The narrative charts a classical double-track path to the finish line, with Siang’s opportunity to shine in a music competition crosscut for maximum emotional impact with Jie’s tryout for the big league. A heart-tugging flashback brought vigorously into play here is Siang’s life-affecting childhood memory of overhearing a kid say he won a junior piano competition only “because he’s blind.”
The cast is bright and appealing, but visuals lack the same spark. Colors are subdued to the point where some flesh tones border on pallid-looking, and uninspired lensing of dance sequences rarely features full-length body shots that display the beauty of the form. Huang tickles the ivories wonderfully; the rest of the music is fine. Other tech aspects are pro.