With his debut feature, director Hong Khaou creates a quiet, stunning vision of love and loss in Lilting. It is a story that explores grief and acceptance in its many forms, crossing cultural and societal boundaries as it does so.
Richard arranges for a friend, Vann, to translate his conversations with Junn, as well as Junn’s interactions with an elderly gentleman that she is courting, Alan. The interactions with Alan provide a welcome break from the tragedy, with a frankly hilarious scene as Junn details what she doesn’t like about Alan, and Vann provides the deadpan translation. But seeing Vann translate for Junn and Richard is an interesting technique. Repeating Junn’s words in English somehow numbs the feeling, adding to the emptiness she feels now her son is gone. It is when Junn’s words go un-translated, save for the subtitles, that the depths of her emotions are truly explored.
But it is Ben Whishaw, and to an even greater extent, Cheng Pei-pei whom this film belongs to. Pei-pei is an absolutely stunning screen presence, her cold, harsh exterior changes when, with Richard barely masking Junn’s immense loss, and as she experiences a fond memory of her son, the delight on her face is simply captivating. Whishaw, meanwhile, is rightly considered one of Britain’s finest young actors, and it’s no different here. Richard is put through the emotional wringer in this film, and Whishaw pulls off the complexity of his character with perfect ease.
Made on a low budget, Lilting makes great use of its dull colour palate to emphasise the loneliness and loss faced by Junn and Richard. They dress in drably coloured clothes, and Junn is surrounded by old-fashioned décor. But in the flashbacks, we see Richard and Kai in bright, white rooms, and Junn and Kai in a room with beautiful purple hydrangeas. It is a lovely, yet simple contrast. Junn’s sheltered accommodation and Kai and Richard’s apartment (which looks wonderful, by the way) are two worlds apart, just like the cultural gap between the two, and seeing each other in the other’s environment is symbolic of that divide that was bridged by Kai. Vann’s presence in all of these scenes is crucial also, almost as if she is the new Kai, helping the two to connect without him.
Lilting is an affecting, quiet drama that pays close attention to the realities of loss. While it explores issues of culture and sexuality, it uses these more than a mere device to create tension. It tells a wholly human and relatable story that is just as hopeful as it is devastating.
Lilting is playing at the East End Film Festival. Catch it on 18th of June at Hackney Picture house. Buy tickets here!