After the death of his wife Inga and with bad news about his own health hovering on the horizon, Kristófer (Egill Ólafsson) closes his Icelandic restaurant and travels to London just as COVID shutdowns are beginning to spread to find the daughter of the owner of the Japanese restaurant he found his calling in fifty years earlier, the woman we will learn he first said ‘I love you’ to, in “Touch.”

Laura's Review: B

Cowriter (with the novel's author, Olaf Olafsson)/director Baltasar Kormákur ("101 Reykjavik," "Adrift") casts his ensemble over multiple decades in three different locations to tell a touching love story interrupted by a little known, tragic social stigma.  This is a gentle, satisfying love story that takes its time unfurling, letting us get to know Kristófer in the present as we learn about his past.

The first clue will come from a Japanese haiku that brings a smile to his face (‘On dry land the fish pretended not to speak a word of the Japanese language’), the second the lovely looking restaurant he closes as he recites its menu, a memory exercise that hints at his future.  He’ll get a phone call from his stepdaughter Sonja as he checks in at the airport, she astonished that he’s leaving the country during the onset of a pandemic (the pandemic will remain a constant in the present day, although reminders of its presence become increasingly slipshod, especially in a Japanese karaoke bar).

Kormákur uses a flashback structure to build his story, which finds Kristófer (Pálmi Kormákur, "The Deep") as a tall, shaggy haired, good looking student who, upset with the London School of Economics’ politics, rashly quits by responding to a help wanted sign posted outside of Nippon, a Japanese restaurant.   As he enters, he exchanges glances with a pretty young woman on her way out, and is told to return in the morning for an interview.  Although he has no restaurant experience, Kristófer connects with Takahashi-san (Masahiro Motoki, "Departures") over his Icelandic fishing boat experience.  We’ll later learn that a little reverse psychology on that young woman, Miko’s (Kōki), part, had something to do with his hiring as well.

Although his college friends arrive to wonder at Kristófer’s decision to become a dishwasher, the young man is warmly accepted in the Japanese kitchen where Arai-San (Tatsuya Tagawa) sings opera and Hitomi (Meg Kubota) hustles plates.  He begins to teach himself Japanese and Takahashi-san begins to teach him how to cook, urging him to prepare Tonkatsu, breaded pork cutlets.  As he concentrates in the kitchen, his long hair held back by a twisted bandana, Miko will gently push his hair back, cupping his face in her palm.  

The romance is tentative, Miko having introduced him to her Japanese boyfriend, but there is tension between Miko and her father, who appears to send the young man away.  The two will share smokes in the restaurant’s outdoor courtyard,  Kristófer questioned about his former Icelandic girlfriend and Miko relaying the tragedy of her mother’s death one year after being caught in the Hiroshima bombing while six months pregnant.   Things turn more serious, but although they keep their relationship secret, Kristófer is shocked to return from holiday break to find Hitomi emptying the fish tank, the restaurant closed, and Takahashi-san and Miko having returned to Japan.

Present day Kristófer’s journey is more comedic, his nervous London Hotel Clerk (Kieran Buckeridge) trying to get him to check out so they may close the hotel down.  While both are unsuccessful tracking down Miko, the clerk locates Hitomi.   Kristófer visits her in an elderly facility and she’s not only thrilled to see him after all these years, but has a fairly recent letter from Miko with a return address.  Sonja will once again be astonished to learn her stepfather is now in Tokyo, where he had an all night adventure with a man he meets at a bar.

The film moves a little slowly and ends a bit abruptly, but it’s a lovely romance with mysteries revealed when Kristófer reaches his final destination.  Production designer Sunneva Ása Weisshappel finds similarities between Iceland and Japan, London standing in period contrast.  Ólafsson doesn’t quite convince as an older version of Kormákur physically, but both have the gentle, curious nature of their shared character.  Yoko Narahashi resembles Kōki more in her later years, she and Ólafsson falling into the younger actors’ dynamic.  Ruth Sheen ("Another Year," "Cyrano") is amusing as the younger Kristófer’s judgmental landlady.

Focus Features releases "Touch" in theaters on 7/12/24.