‘Touch’ Review: An Old-School Tear-Jerker, With a Twist

by Pelican Press
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‘Touch’ Review: An Old-School Tear-Jerker, With a Twist

“Touch,” a globe-trotting romance from Iceland, is an epic, old-fashioned weepie in the vein of “Atonement” and “The Notebook” — it’s mushy and ridiculous, then, suddenly, you’re in the throes of an ugly cry.

Based on the novel by Olafur Johann Olafsson, the film straddles two timelines — 2020, at the very outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and Swinging Sixties London — and plays out, at first, like a mystery. Kristofer (Egill Olafsson), an ex-restaurateur and widower, is diagnosed with dementia and spurred into action before the disease might incapacitate him: He books a flight from Reykjavik to London, unfazed by the imminent lockdown. He’s the only guest at his London hotel, his flights are near-empty, and his anxious daughter keeps calling, urging him to get back home.

As Kristofer revisits his old stamping grounds — he was a student in London — the source of his longing becomes clear. In the earlier timeline, a young Kristofer (Palmi Kormakur), a devoted leftist, abandons his studies and takes a dishwashing job at a Japanese restaurant. The rest of the staff is Japanese, but the restaurant owner, Takahashi-san (Masahiro Motoki), takes a liking to this Icelandic gentle giant, whose passion for Japanese culture is convincing. (Plus, there’s a humorous parallel between Iceland and Japan — the love of fish!) The trope of the white guy with an Asian fetish certainly comes to mind, but Kormakur’s soft-spoken charisma wards off this pigeonholing, creating space for the Japanese characters to become three-dimensional as they tease Kristofer out of his shell.

Then there’s the girl: Miko (Koki), Takahashi-san’s daughter, with whom Kristofer is smitten. The film tracks the twists and turns of their friendship, which unfold tragically when Miko’s origins — she’s a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing — come to light.

Directed by Baltasar Kormakur, the father of Palmi, a veteran filmmaker with big-budget Hollywood credits (“Beast,” “Adrift,” “2 Guns”), “Touch” rekindles a treacly genre that I didn’t realize I missed. Its tender performances and gut-punch reveals are classic tear-jerker ingredients. Add to this a natural, inordinately sensitive approach to intercultural love — mercifully, without a sense of righteousness or obligation.

Rated R for sex, references to abortion and images of atomic bomb casualties. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. In theaters.

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