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The Touch Has the Midas Touch
The Touch (Tian Mai Chuanqi), a long-awaited kung fu (Chinese martial arts) movie starring Michelle Yeoh and directed by Peter Pau, started showing in first-round theatres across the country as well as in other parts of Asia in early August.

Seeing the two big names together might remind movie fans of last year's Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a martial arts epic in which Yeoh played the lead role and for which Pau won the Oscar for best cinematography.

Actually the film's makers hoped to repeat the success of Crouching Tiger, which enjoyed unprecedented wide popularity, especially in North America. It is expected to copy the success of Ang Lee's dreamy epic by displaying dazzling Chinese kung fu and the best of ancient Chinese philosophical attainments to the world.

Besides starring, Yeoh co-produced the film and hired the film-making team.

With an investment of US$20 million, The Touch is undoubtedly a blockbuster in China, where many films are produced on only one-tenth of that amount or even less.

Obviously, the collaboration of the famous actress and top director-cinematographer has the power to attract movie-goers.

People's eagerness for more Crouching-Tiger kind of stuff has helped the film achieve success, though only in the box-office.

According to Beijing Youth Daily, so far the film has raked in more than 30 million yuan (US$3.6 million) on the Chinese mainland.

In the first week after its release, it took in more than 13 million yuan (US$1.6 million) on the Chinese mainland, and another 10 million Hong Kong dollars (US$1.3 million) in Hong Kong.

Its Chinese box office sales surpassed those of Star Wars: Episode II, a Hollywood production which was a big hit in many Chinese cities.

In Qingdao, a coastal city in East China's Shandong Province where a part of the film was shot, The Touch was released two weeks later than in some major cities.

According to the distribution company of the motion picture, in five days The Touch surpassed the local box office figures for The Lord of the Rings, another great imported flick.

But despite its box-office success, the film is being criticized for its very obvious lack of creativity.

The movie, jointly made by Hong Kong-based Mythical Films and Tianjin Film Studio, is an action-adventure, set in contemporary China, about the search for a mythical Buddhist artefact.

Family Saga

The inspiration for the story came from a family saga.

More than 700 years ago, the Monks of Dunhuang, a legendary place in Northwest China's Gansu Province, hid the Sharira -- a Buddhist relic purported to contain the pure essence of a Holy Man.

To protect this greatest of treasures, it was placed where no ordinary human being would ever be able to reach.

However, to ensure that it could be retrieved someday, the Monks turned themselves into a family of secular acrobats. For hundreds of years, the family of former monks trained, passing on the skills required to get back the rare and precious Sharira.

Michelle Yeoh, who played James Bond's girl in Tomorrow Never Dies, is Yin, who along with her brother, represents the last of the legendary family-troupe.

She travels through the world as a circus performer with her little brother Tong, the two of them entrancing audiences with their dazzling performances.

One day, Eric, Yin's former lover, shows up with the Heart of Dunhuang, a heart-shaped stone which is believed to be a clue to the whereabouts of the Sharira.

The time has come for Yin to shoulder the responsibility of getting back the Sharira, the only reason for the existence of Yin's family for hundreds of years.

Yin and Eric, together with Yin's brother Tong and Tong's girlfriend, then embark on a hazardous journey to rediscover the treasure.

In almost all such flicks, "good people" fight against the forces of evil. The Touch is no exception.

The man throwing grit in the wheels of Yin and her friends' search through the remote deserts of Northwest China is Karl, a merciless British art-collector who has an incredible craze for collecting valuable relics.

In addition to the search for the treasure, the action flick also mixes in romance between the hero and the heroine, just as it always happens in such stereotyped stories.

Eric is an orphan who Yin's father had adopted. The two grew up together and developed a kind of adolescent love.

After the death of Yin's father, Eric left the family and became a thief working for Karl, the ruthless rich man.

All members of the troupe, especially Yin, cannot forgive Eric's betray, even after he brings them the "Heart of Dunhuang."

An important part of the story is about how Yin gradually forgives Eric during their life-and-death struggle with Karl and his equally-ruthless cohorts.

The story is chock-full of such stereotypes.

It seems that the director wants to get everything into The Touch -- action, mystery, adventure, romance, religion and comedy -- and the result, very clearly, is a hodgepodge.

Inspired by the success of Crouching Tiger, Peter Pau has gone out of his way to please audiences in the United States.

However, this was not a shrewd move, considering the fact that the largest audience group is Mandarin-speaking Chinese.

To add an "international" element, the screenwriter created two foreign characters -- Karl and Eric.

However, it is not clear how Eric, a white kid, wound up homeless on the streets of Malaysia, and there is no reasonable explanation of how Eric turns from a circus performer into a master thief nor of how he joins hands with the evil Karl.

Englishman Ben Chaplin (The Truth About Cats & Dogs), who plays Eric, and Richard Roxburgh (Moulin Rouge), who plays Karl, are the two major Western actors in the film.

Karl is cast as a murderous villain who will resort to anything to snatch the precious Sharira.

The movie is shot exclusively in English, dubbed into Mandarin for the Chinese mainland showing.

The humor is largely lost in the process of translation, and this has made the dialogue sound somewhat stiff, stilted and strange.

The Touch, produced in Dunhuang and Tibet, features spectacular scenery that is typically Chinese. But the dialogue and characters relentlessly destroy any culturally familiar feelings the scenery arouses in the hearts of Chinese audiences.

Peter Pau does not show the genius in directing that he obviously has in cinematography.

To introduce an element of comedy, the camera focuses on Karl's loyal but obviously stupid hatchet men, and the audiences are expected to laugh at some badly overdone acting.

Even the impetuous Tong, played by newcomer Brandon Chang, seems to be a bumbling idiot.

Overuse of SFX

Another flaw is the overuse of SFX (special effect cinematography).

Audiences who have waited to watch Michelle Yeoh's fantastic tussling might be disappointed by the extremely unrealistic computer effects.

The fluorescent loops in Yin and Tong's circus performance at the beginning, and the giant fake elevating fire pillars in the finale have made The Touch more like a computer game than a movie.

Yeoh, who has spurned a role in the Matrix sequel for The Touch, has reportedly admitted that she thinks the movie is flawed.

According to the Guangzhou-based Xinxi Times, Yeoh said, "The flaws of The Touch leave a lot of room for improvement in my next film."

Despite the imperfections, the Malaysia-born kung fu star is quite satisfied with her maiden work as a producer.

Mythical Films is Yeoh's own film company, and The Touch is the company's first-ever production.

The 39-year-old is now busy with her second work as a producer, Hua Mulan, which is about a pious daughter in ancient China who pretended to be a man to serve in the army so that her father could be exempted from military service.

In that film, Yeoh will also play the leading role.

(China Daily September 5, 2002)

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