“Barriers of age and culture, sexuality and shame are overcome with delicacy and grace in “Lilting,” a quietly resonant chamber piece about the bond that develops between a Chinese-Cambodian mother and the young British lad who was the “best friend” of her late son. Intimate and sensitive almost to a fault, this debut feature by Cambodian-born, London-based filmmaker Hong Khaou displays a sure touch with actors and a sharp ear for the stop-and-go rhythms of two people trying to prevail past not only a language gap, but also the intense privacy of their own grief. A fine fit for festivals on and beyond the gay circuit, the film may be modest in scale and impact, but its genteel approach and cross-cultural storytelling should speak to a refined arthouse niche.
Fittingly enough for a film so preoccupied with interior states, almost every scene of “Lilting” is set indoors, starting with a dreamlike opening scene that finds sixtysomething June (Cheng Pei-pei) conversing in Mandarin with her son, Kai (Andrew Leung). The rapport between mother and son is deeply affectionate but also playful, barbed and sometimes testy enough to strike the occasional nerve: Strong-willed June bemoans Kai’s increasing detachment from her life, feeling as though she’s continually coming in second to his friend and roommate, Richard.
It’ll be clear enough to viewers from this exchange that Kai and Richard are more than just friends and roommates, even if June remains either ignorant or in denial. A moment later, it’s revealed that she isn’t really talking to her son but instead reliving a memory, Kai having died not too long ago under tragic circumstances. Now June spends her days in a London retirement home, her loneliness exacerbated by the fact that she speaks no English. But one day Richard, hoping to connect with his boyfriend’s only living family member, pays her a visit; she’s wary and unresponsive at first, making little secret of her dislike for this young man. But she begins to thaw when Richard returns with a friend, Vann (Naomi Christie), who happens to be fluent in Mandarin and English.
At first Richard brings Vann along as an interpreter for June and Alan (Peter Bowles), a fellow retiree who has been sweetly courting her with flowers and kisses. The early stages of their relationship, awkwardly mediated by Vann and Richard, supply an ingratiating vein of comedy that provides some relief from the generally dour proceedings, even if some of Alan’s randy-old-sod dialogue feels rather too calculated to amuse. But soon the dramatic engine kicks in as Vann begins translating longer, deeper and inevitably more painful conversations between Richard and June, quietly filling in the gaps for June about how her son lived while carefully withholding the true nature of Richard and Kai’s relationship.
The progress of the story from there is hardly surprising and doesn’t build to the sort of shattering conclusion some viewers might expect, but it’s always shrewdly and movingly observed along the way. Khaou’s interests and sympathies extend in all directions; in perhaps the writer-director’s most compassionate gesture, both June and Richard experience visions of Kai as a living, breathing but fleeting projection of what they’ve lost — a potentially maudlin spiritual touch that is handled with skill and restraint. While the characters’ background details (including their occupations) are kept to a minimum, the emotions the story touches are vivid and accessible: June’s sense of alienation upon first emigrating to London with her Chinese-French husband years ago; the intense mother-son bond that made it all the harder for Kai to open up about his sexuality, despite Richard’s gentle encouragement; and the universal burden of taking responsibility for one’s aging parents while still maintaining a life of one’s own.
Cheng (still best known to American audiences from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) beautifully inhabits the role of a woman whose sense of not belonging has made her naturally distrustful of everyone around her, though June’s own capacity for warmth, humor and generosity soon rewardingly reveals itself. Coming off memorable turns in last year’s “Skyfall” and “Cloud Atlas,” Whishaw, looking preternaturally sensitive with his goatee, unkempt hair and bony physique, reconfirms himself as an actor of natural charisma and striking depth; Richard’s every action feels motivated by an innate sense of decency and optimism spurred by love.
Adding enormously to the central dynamic is Christie’s Vann, who for all her professionalism cannot help getting caught up in June and Richard’s emotionally messy interactions, even as her vital interpretation skills help keep the drama focused and practically grounded. The three-way bilingual conversations are paced and edited smoothly, with smart but not excessive reliance on subtitles. Apart from a slightly overused score, the tech package is quite strong on a limited budget, from the muted, wintry tones of Ula Pontikos’ HD lensing to production designer Miren Maranon’s spare but lovingly furnished interiors.” (Justin Chang, Variety)
“Lilting is a fitting title for a film comprised of conversations. Director Hong Khaou beautifully captures this unique story of Junn, a woman whose son—her only connection to the world around her—dies tragically, leaving her in discomfort and suspension in a rest home as her deceased son’s boyfriend, Richard, struggles to help her while coming to terms with his own loss and guilt. This is a film driven by dialogue, split between English and Mandarin, highlighted by creative editing—and its best moments show the problems and breakthroughs in communication between the characters. Though in a Q&A, the director expressed initial concern over drawn-out monologues, the pacing of the conversations—potentially troublesome since the crux of the film is a language barrier between the Chinese Junn and English Richard aided by a translator—is seamless, and Hong Khaou awards the audience with plenty of comedic respites from the drama. Chinese actor Pei-Pei Cheng shines in her role as the mother, and brings the grace and subtlety necessary of her character. Ben Whishaw also gives an emotion-driven performance, never over-the-top and with just enough discomfort in his mannerisms to make the friction in his relationship with Junn stand out, but not overwhelm the scenes. Outside of the great performances, Lilting is beautifully filmed, beginning and ending in sweeping, satisfying one-shot scenes of the impeccable sets. Hong Khaou said that much of the plot and sentiment stemmed from his own loss of his father as a young boy, and though the feeling of loss is very tangible, it plays second stage to Hong Khaou’s depiction of communication, and how it often transcends language. The World Dramatic Competition has a deserving winner in this one—good luck, Lilting.” (Esther Meroño, slugmag.com)
“A moving, and sharply wrought screenplay supported by several elegant performances marks Cambodian born director Hong Khaou as a director to keep note of with his directorial debut, Lilting. A quiet drama revolving around communication, acceptance, and overcoming cultural barriers, it’s a viewing experience that’s wholly rewarding but requires patience, dealing with the hard won realism of grief, resentment, and the still prevalent notion of the hurt and awkwardness that accompanies the process of coming out to loved ones.
We meet June (Cheng Pei-pei) as her son Kai (Andrew Leung) visits her in a London nursing home. Quickly we learn, as they converse in Mandarin, that this a recent, and begrudgingly temporary decision on behalf of both parties. They interact with familiar warmth, but June seems bitter that she cannot move into her son’s home, something impossible due to the fact that he shares his small flat with his “best friend,” Richard (Ben Whishaw). Of course, to us, it’s apparent that Richard is more than a friend and June seems to be in insistent denial of the fact that Kai is gay. But before the opening credits roll, we understand that June is not actually talking to Kai, that the conversation is taking place in her own mind since her son has passed away. Because June always resented Richard, perhaps not comprehending the true nature of his relationship to her son, she is averse to his visits to her at the nursing home. But June has developed an affectionate relationship with another member of the nursing home, Alan (Peter Bowles), even though they do not speak the same language. In an effort to help June, since he now feels responsible for her, Richard hires an interpreter, Vann (Naomi Christie), to translate for the couple. Of course, this also leads to an avenue for Richard to communicate with June as well.
While there’s certainly not much surprise to be had with the events transpiring in Lilting, its power lies in the quiet interactions between two individuals grieving and struggling to find a common understanding. To have administered a bombastic climax or harrowing finale would have seemed out of step with Khaou’s tender, fragile creation of breaking down culturally constructed barriers.
The subplot involving Alan’s relationship with June provides some necessary comic relief as it further develops characterization, though the droll Peter Bowles sometimes seems too conveniently used and in perhaps too high a dose. However, Naomi Christie strikes an extremely likeable presence as the bridge between Pei-pei and Whishaw. While Pei-pei’s performance is rightly subdued and realistic, the heart of the film lies with Whishaw’s extremely moving performance as the mourning Richard, with not a dogged glance or a teary lilt out of place.
Urszula Pontikos, who also served as cinematographer for Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, gives a series of controlled interior shots, breaking out into large expansive landscapes and skylines after several emotional buildups, resulting in some much needed exhalation. While it revolves around somber themes, Lilting is a celebratory piece, a rare film that manages to strike the right notes concerning the difficulty we experience interacting and understanding one another. Voto: 3/6 (ioncinema.com)