Lilting, which played at Sundance and opened the BFI Flare LGBT film festival in 2014, is precisely the sort of small-scale drama that often slips below people’s radar on release. Now available via the BFI Player and screening on BBC Two on the 1st of April at 11:05 this is a great opportunity to get acquainted with Hong Khaou’s debut film.
Produced through Film London’s Microwave scheme Lilting is a remarkably assured and ambitious debut from writer/director Hong Khaou that explores parallel themes of loss, memory, and love that cross (and transcend) generations and sexualities.
Following a mutual loss, Richard (Ben Whishaw) through complicated feelings of guilt and responsibility reaches out to his late partner’s mother Junn (Pei-pei Cheng). The Cambodian/Chinese Junn had been placed in an old people’s home by her son, the absent but – through the magic of editing – ever-present Kai (Andrew Leung). There is a bit of a problem, Junn is openly contemptuous of her son’s ‘friend’ and has never understood why she was placed in the home, a place in which she is further alienated by her inability to speak English. Of course, the reason is that Kai had not come out to his mother and was afraid of her reaction to his sexual orientation.
Richard strikes on a potential way of helping the elderly but proud woman when he learns that she is sharing a tentative romance with an elderly gentleman (a wonderful comic turn by Peter Bowles). Junn and her beau cannot communicate verbally, so Richard hires the services of a translator so they can talk and find out more about each other.
This is a sensitive and affecting film, which tells a deceptively simple story in a complex and novelistic style. By presenting scenes from the point of view of different characters, Khaou is able to fashion a narrative that is able to present the interior life of characters (something that is often problematic for a visual medium). Although Kai is the great absence at the heart of the film, the character also exists in the present through the memories of Junn and Richard. This also gives strikingly handsome actor Andrew Leung a great deal of screen time.
This is a very low budget film – the Microwave scheme exists to provide limited funding of up to £120,000 to first time filmmakers – but where many low budget efforts have a strictly ‘kitchen sink’ aesthetic, Lilting is both imaginatively shot and uses the unique style of the assisted living environment to create a slightly out of time feel – the home is decorated in muted fifties colours and furnishings be more comfortable to its elderly inhabitants. By using long takes and a fluid camera, actors playing a scene can exit the frame in one time period, and enter again in another. It sounds heavy handed and distracting, but it is achieved with grace. Cinematographer Ula Pontikos – who shot Andrew Haigh’s Weekend and Debbie Tucker Green’s Second Coming) – won a Sundance award for her work here.
Formidable Chinese actress Pei-pei Cheng is the essence of the film. Famed for her performances in martial arts classics from King Hu’s 1966 Come Drink With Me to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) Cheng is by turns spiky, cantankerous and heartbreaking. There is a good debut performance from Naomi Christie as the translator. Ben Whishaw is initially surprisingly low key, but as the film progresses Khaou’s script gives the audience more and more of the character and a deeply moving portrait of a relationship devastatingly lost emerges.
This is a very compelling debut film that while emotionally wrenching is also warm, humane and often very funny.
This review was originally published in Verite Film Magazine.