Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Cheng Pei Pei and Ben Wishaw in Lilting
"Minor quibbles aside, this is a strikingly confident, graceful and sensitive piece of work." | Photo: James Dewar

Lilting is writer-director Hong Khaou ’s debut feature, emerging from the ultra-low budget Film London Microwave scheme. Despite these small-scale origins, the film has already built a head of steam: it was the opening film of this year’s BFI Flare Festival, and opened the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance Film Festival. Such attention was not misplaced, as Hong Khaou ’s film is a well crafted, well acted, and emotionally resonant chamber piece.

Starring Ben Whishaw (Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer), Cheng Pei Pei (a veteran Chinese actress who appeared in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), newcomer Andrew Leung, and veteran Peter Bowles, Lilting’s plot is concerned with grief and it’s effects on communication and memory. Most of the main characters have lost something: either a person, or the familiarity of the life they once knew, and are struggling to reach out in some way, and to someone, to counteract and contextualise this.

At the heart of the story is the triangular relationship between Cambodian-Chinese widow Junn (Cheng), her Westernised son Kai (Leung), and Kai’s lover Richard (Whishaw). The opening minutes introduce us to Kai and Junn via a tender mother-son moment, as Junn, ensconced in a care home, chides her son for forgetting a music CD she asked for and begs to be allowed to move in with him in his East London apartment.

Tension is noticeable, as she complains that Kai’s ‘friend’, whom we later learn is Richard, is still a presence in Kai’s life and seemingly the reason why she cannot move in with her son. Only after a few minutes have passed do we learn, via a simple camera movement back down to a bed from Junn’s face, that Kai is, in fact, not present. This warm mother-son conversation was merely a melancholy flashback. Kai is dead. This is one of several simple in-camera contrivances that Khao uses to convey how time and memory are being distorted by the grief that permeates the characters' lives.

Jun’s grief-inflected world is further disrupted by the sudden presence of Richard. We soon learn Kai kept his sexuality and long relationship with Richard a secret from his conservative mother. Richard is conflicted. He claims he wants to introduce himself to Junn given they had never met before and he was Kai’s ‘best friend’. He also offers to help Junn, who stubbornly has refused to learn English, to adapt to life in the care home by paying for a translator, a young Anglo-Chinese woman called Vann (newcomer Naomi Christie), to help her with a budding relationship with the elderly Englishman Alan.

But Richard also wants much more: he yearns to confess his love for Kai to Junn and to have it validated in her eyes, and at the same time let loose his rage at this woman who was a constraining force on his relationship with Kai. For her part, Junn should on all accounts dismiss Richard, given what we know of her suspicions about his influence on Kai. But curiously, she accepts his offer. The implication is that both people, even if they don’t know it fully, are being drawn to each other given both are the last living connection to a man they both mutually loved in different ways.

This dynamic generates tension - from the mismatch of the two personalities and the expectation that at some point Richard’s secret love for Kai will be revealed. This ‘love that dare not speak its name’ scenario harks back to an earlier time, given the strides that have been made in LGBT equality in recent years.

As the plot gently rolls forward, Khao uses a non-chronological narrative laced with unannounced flashbacks (which could also be imaginings) to show how these mismatched characters were brought together by loss, and how time has become more fluid as their memories of him wash over them. Often there is no clear sign as to when a character on screen is in the ‘present’ or in the midst of a flashback. This doesn’t make the backstories complicated to grasp, it just emphasises how grief clearly is making the past a near-overwhelming force.

As we learn more about the characters, we also bear witness to their difficulties in trying to connect with one another without a common language and through this fog of pain. Some of the most powerful and interesting scenes come from watching Richard speak to Junn via Vann, only to hastily retract and edit his sentences before Vann can translate in Chinese so as to prevent his and Kai’s true relationship becoming known. Whishaw is especially good here, portraying a man bursting with conflicting desires, guilt and sadness, plus the effort involved in this game of hiding.

The language barrier is the source of some humour and warmth too, mostly via a subplot in which Junn is courted by the bumbling but polite Alan who at one point, with Vann out of the room, muses on how he would like to do all kinds of delicious things to Junn on the table where they have just had dinner. There is pleasure to be had, as well as pain, in talking without understanding. Some of the more poignant exchanges are those which show Junn and Richard gradually realising the smaller things that Kai imprinted on them. Junn, in a visit to Richard’s flat to pick up her son’s things, notes that he fries bacon with chopsticks, to which Richard replies that he can’t imagine doing it any other way after learning it from Kai.

The well-executed, time-frame meddling structure of Khao’s film is melded to the dreamy cinematography of Weekend cinematographer Ula Pontikos (who won a Sundance award) to ultimately create a rich atmosphere of both sorrow and warmth. This is an impressive and heartfelt debut, even if it isn’t a perfect film; there are, for example, some contrived plot elements, such as Richard forgetting Junn is due to arrive at his flat for a prearranged meeting, which forces him to rapidly empty their shared room of his personal items. It seems unlikely such an important arranged meeting would be forgotten, even if this plot device does allow for a painful observation of the depths to which Richard is forced to sink to conceal his love. We also don’t see much of Kai and Richard’s backstory, which would have given more resonance to their relationship and contextualised Richard’s sense of loss more.

But minor quibbles aside, this is a strikingly confident, graceful and sensitive piece of work. Khao’s next project can’t come too soon.

Reviewed on: 26 Aug 2014
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A bereaved mother and the boyfriend of her son find a connection.
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Read more Lilting reviews:

Amber Wilkinson ***

Director: Hong Khaou

Writer: Hong Khaou

Starring: Ben Whishaw, Leila Wong, Morven Christie, Peter Bowles, Shane Salter, Pei-pei Cheng, Peter E. Hopkins, Andrew Leung, John Matthews

Year: 2014

Runtime: 86 minutes

Country: UK

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