The Godfather. The Great Beauty. Surf Nazis Must Die! Some films are so perfectly titled you can’t ever imagine them being called anything else. To that list, we must now addend a new (if far less maximal) title: Lilting, a nuanced and subtly rich debut offering from Cambodian-born, UK-based writer-director Hong Khaou that does so much to dramatise and visualise that melancholy passage separating happiness from sadness, connection from estrangement.
We open on Junn (Cheng Pei Pei), a widowed Cambodian-Chinese immigrant presently holed up in a London care home, shooting the breeze in Mandarin with her half-English son Kai (Andrew Leung). Their chat – everyday stuff about food, music, flowers, the buses – is hardly revelatory; what follows, however, is. A change of lighting, occasioned by a care worker replacing a bulb, reveals Kai is no longer there; the conversation was mere consolation, a memory a lonely old woman might cling to in a place so very far away from where she originated.
Like many an emergent indie kid, Khaou has a particular ear for talk: not just the conversations the bereaved might have mentally with just-departed loved ones, but the here-and-now smalltalk – an English prerequisite – by which those around the bereaved strive to say the right thing. It’s through a translator that Kai’s boyfriend Richard (Ben Whishaw) comes to reach out to Junn, and we sense the need for an interlocutor: there’s a frostiness between the two that stems from the fact they were never properly introduced – Kai hadn’t come out to his parents before his death – and share no common tongue.
The one thing they both agree on – that they loved this young man – is the one thing they can’t say out loud; the drama of Khaou’s film therefore stems from a process of negotiation, the tentative attempt to find and occupy this small patch of common ground. It’s through this process that Lilting transcends the “gay drama” tag: it’s as much the story of a mother who’s never truly felt at home in the UK, and of one generation’s attempt to communicate to another.
Khaou has realised there’s something formally interesting in having so much of his dialogue translated on screen, without the comforting immediacy of subtitles. It allows the words to hang in the air, and the viewer extra seconds to watch these sentiments hitting home; alternatively, it allows us to observe the characters drifting out of conversations they don’t understand – to go somewhere in their heads or retreat into the past – and Lilting is eloquent indeed about that grief-related condition we call “being out of it”, and what it takes to get us back in the room and the present tense.
As the dramatic stakes are raised, one has the sensation of watching a verbal poker game: these individuals are working out what exactly they need to lay down on the table, and what they feel the need to withhold by going untranslated. (Presumably, the film’s full range of subtleties will only be apparent to viewers fluent in both English and Mandarin.)
Any latent wispiness is dispelled by the superb leads: Cheng fiercely unsentimental, expressive in a way that barely requires translation, Whishaw reaching for defensive, inward-looking glances and self-censoring stumbles that somehow never obscure the character’s very best intentions. Yet Khaou is just as interested in the conversations going on around them: Naomi Christie makes a sparky, spontaneous translator, and there’s a nice reminder of the peerless, sitcom-honed timing of Peter Bowles as the English gent trying to woo Junn in the care-home lounge in a light-comic, hetero counterpart to the main action.
The result achieves the delicate, hard-to-conjure magic of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, even as it gently, carefully extends the scope: all of its relationships are thought through, inhabited and brought to rare life, and Khaou’s quietist, understated handling only enhances its moods, its emotion, its humanity. It absolutely lilts, and quite beautifully with it.
(MovieMail, June 2014)
Lilting screens on BBC2 tonight at 11.50pm.