Lilting – Review by Frances Winston
Directed by: Hong Khaou
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Cheng Pei-pei, Andrew Leung, Morven Christie, Naomi Christie, Peter Bowles
In cinemas August 8th
This debut from Cambodian born British writer/director Hong Khaou hits our screens having already won huge acclaim and awards on the festival circuit – and rightly so. Touching and heart wrenching there are few people that won’t resonate with this tale of love and loss on some level.
Told bi-lingually it tells the tale of Junn (Pei-pei), a Chinese Cambodian who has been living in the UK for most of her adult life but has never assimilated into the culture. Deeply dependent on her son Kai (Leung), who is her only child, she resents the fact that she is now living in sheltered accommodation because she doesn’t get along with his “friend” Richard (Whishaw). However, Kai and Richard are actually long term lovers and Kai didn’t want her living with them as he wasn’t yet out to her. When Kai dies Richard tries to connect with Junn while battling his own grief. Since she speaks no English and he no Mandarin he hires a translator in order to help her communicate with Alan (Bowles), a man she has developed a friendship with, and by default the pair begin to learn more about each other as they navigate their way through the grieving process.
Beautifully crafted this builds at a slow and steady pace much like the relationship between Junn and Richard. Whishaw gives an incredible performance as a man battling desperately to recover from his loss but trying to maintain an inner strength and he has some beautiful scenes with Pei-pei where they both articulate their love for Kai without ever understanding a word the other says. When Whishaw finally outs Kai from beyond the grave and explains their relationship it is a truly beautiful moment and although she never says it you get the impression that deep down Junn knew all along. Veteran actor Peter Bowles eschews the upper crust gentlemen roles that have made his name and gives a subtle but engaging performance as Alan, the slightly randy fellow resident of the home who is courting Junn. We learn much about both Richard and Junn’s relationship with Kai through flashback scenes but they are not overused and never overly sentimental. Rather they are recollections of shared moments that help the audience build a picture of their lives. Leung is excellent in these as a man torn between his love for his partner and his sense of duty and love for his mother.
Cultural and linguistic differences play a big part in this film and are sensitively handled rather than being overblown for dramatic effect. You sense Junn’s frustration at not being able to communicate freely but also her stubbornness in refusing to learn to do so shines through. Kai’s fear of telling her the truth about his life is something that will resonate with many. Meanwhile it is impossible not to feel empathy for Richard who is struggling to cope without his love but can’t even share stories of their life together with Kai’s only family.
Deeply affecting this is the kind of film that leaves you with a lump in your throat. All the characters are victims of something – be it their culture, their sexuality or their past – and an overriding sense of sadness and regret hangs over the whole picture. A touching and sensitive look at how our relationships have a ripple effect on our lives and those of others if this doesn’t move you there is definitely something wrong with you.