Giving Chinese whispers and cultural difference a voice, Hong Khaou’s Lilting is an intimate and moving study of translation, reconciliation and grief.
Distant Voices, Still Lives by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s an enigmatic title Hong Khaou has chosen for his debut feature Lilting. But as it swings between Cambodian Chinese and English, grieving and memory, age and youth, it’s an evocatively fitting name for this gentle but deeply moving story of a gay man grieving the death of his boyfriend and his attempts to look after his Chinese-speaking mother. Is it the hole suddenly ripped into both their lives? Or their timorous attempts to find some kind of reconciliation over her son’s and his lover’s ashes? Or their limited means of communication requiring a translator? Whatever Khaou’s intention, Lilting is a delicate portrait of two lives listing in emotional free-fall, who despite their personal and cultural estrangement, cling desperately to each other, almost despite themselves, and tear down the cold wall between them.
Listening to Chinese hits from the Fifties, Cambodian-Chinese sexagenarian Junn (Pei Pei Cheng) is visited by her son Kai (Andrew Leung) in her care home. Or at least, alone in her empty room, she remembers his last visit. His “best friend” Richard (Ben Whishaw) who she’s always disliked comes to visit her, but unable to get close to her, leaves again. Only to return with translator Vann (Naomi Christie), intent on making life easier for her in the home, and allowing her burgeoning relationship with ageing casanova Alan (Peter Bowles) to blossom. Gradually, Richard and Junn begin to talk, Richard continuing to protect Junn from the truth of her son’s sexuality. Until, when Junn decides to give Alan the push, she realises it’s Richard she’d rather get to know.
Filmed in both English and Chinese, Lilting is unapologetically bilingual. And translation itself becomes one of the movie’s themes – as the non-professional interpreter Vann finds herself getting involved in both Junn’s romance with Alan, and Richard’s difficult relationship with Junn. Their conversations are lilting, controlled by either a retraction (“Don’t translate that”) or by a long list of questions. And just as sometimes the Chinese is subtitled and at other times not, so too do the couples not always need translation – Alan and Junn talking past one another allows them to avoid the awkward prick of reality, just as Richard and Junn in an incredibly moving scene reach a new depth of understanding, as they talk frankly and openly to each other for the first time. Secrets are a self-combusting refusal of trust, no matter what the language.
There are many stunning pieces of camerawork in Lilting – trompe l’œil sequences that intersperse memory into the fabric of reality. From the opening scene of Junn imagining her son’s visit to the swirling cinematography that leads us from the present where Richard and Vann are sitting in a London café into the past where Richard and Kai talk about putting Kai’s mother into an old people’s home, Lilting uncovers the emotions of grieving with a very cinematic flair, as in both the consciousnesses of Junn and Richard, their attention shifts fluidly and seamlessly between past and present. Haunted by the past as their memories – almost like an arthouse ghost fllm – crash, like a bump in the night, into the bitter weave of reality. The cinematography however culminates in a circular dancing sequences, which begins with Richard dancing alone, and then with Vann, but ends with Kai dancing with his mother and then with Richard who clings to him tightly. It’s accompanied by Junn’s voice, finally giving in to acceptance and forgiveness, the imagined round functioning in both their minds as a journey away from grief and isolation to a communion of souls, shared between the dead and the living.
With brilliant performances from an almost permanently teary-eyed Ben Whishaw and a formidable Pei-Pei Cheng, Lilting is a glorious evocation of memory, grief and reconciliation. It’s at times overwrought with overstated music and an edit that doesn’t dare interrupt the fantasy with a hard cut. But economic in its script, it’s a delicate and affecting tale of two worlds that collide, but that somehow manage to find an understanding and a future, alone and together. Innovative and genuinely cinematic, Hong Khaou’s Lilting is a neatly faceted gem that packs a diamond punch.
Lilting is released on 8th August 2014 in the UK