Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 15, 2015 10:51 am 
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Communication gaps

Lilting is a small budget first film made in London by Hong Khaou about love, loss, aging, coming out, and the coming together of a sixtyish Asian woman living in a retirement home and a young gay Brit after the sudden untimely death of her son, his lover. It's a terrible loss that unites them, yet does not. Eventually he will reveal to her, or acknowledge, his relationship with her son, of which she is ostensibly ignorant. But don't mothers always know?

This film is delicate and touching, also a bit pale. Its scenes are admittedly wan and sad. Yet it still shines as a study in the vagaries of communication and mis-communication. This is because the dialogue is made up almost entirely of speeches in Mandarin and English with the mediation of a paid, but not exactly professional, interpreter. Within these limitations, a blurred but gradually growing sense of intimacy somehow grows. And the acting is uniformly fine.

The bereaved mother is a Cambodian-Chinese lady called Junn (Cheng Pei Pei, best known to western viewers for her role as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and the devastated young gay Brit is Richard (Ben Whishaw, delivering a generous, moving performance that's perhaps his best on film since he played Keats in Jane Campion's Bright Star). Junn has lived in Britain for years, but never assimilated; she knows only a few words of English. The interpreter Richard hires is a friend, Vann (Naomi Christie). With his Bambi eyes and furry face, and now openly gay himself, Whishaw takes on the sad young mourner role with a kid glove fit; according to director Hong Khaou he was the first and only choice. Cheng is excellent too. She's felt as a strong quiet presence that makes Junn a seamless blend of feisty and dignified.

Mother and lover are also seen meeting from time to time with the deceased son and boyfriend, Kai (Andrew Leung), only imagining him of course, because he is gone. He's Eurasian and speaks English with a London accent, but Mandarin with mom; it's part of the story that his father was half French. His appearance is an odd device, but in the keenness of their loss Kai may be more real to mother and lover, at this moment, than anyone alive. The best scenes are the ones when the restrained and dignified Junn lets out her anger at being confined to this place, and when Richard's grief suddenly slips out for a moment.

Richard brings Vann along to meet with Junn ostensibly to translate for her and Alan (Peter Bowles), an elderly man who's begun courting her with flowers and kisses. Richard wants to "help" Junn. Of course this is awkward. Richard is in the way, and it's embarrassing to Alan to open up to Junn through Vann. It's very complicated, but not much is happening. There's a little randy-old-man humor around Alan, but the jokes aren't funny. As much as the film charms and touches, it also droops.

In the back and forth of translation Hong Khau has found expression for the gap between a gay man and an old fashioned, heterosexual adult and the division of languages also dramatizes the isolation of personal loss. Junn lives in a doubly alien world, and the ghost of Kai brings along a specter of guilt and a burden of indecision and missed opportunity. Richard was urging Kai to come out to his mother, and he was about to. Unfortunately she has never liked Richard, but had she known . . . . had Kai made that last trip to see Junn. . . the film is full of what-ifs and regrets.

And yet, we are to suppose that Junn thought Richard and her son were only platonic roommates. She resents having been put in the retirement home, and the pretext that there wasn't enough space for her with Richard and her son. Kai regretted having done this, and was going to undo it. The home's Sixties theme decor, meant to put oldsters at ease, only seems drab -- though Junn's room is filmed in a lovely rose tint. But under the circumstances, the love affair between Junn and Alan seems sepulchral.

To brighten things up, Richard is an excellent cook, and has Vann, Alan, and Junn to a meal at his place. When Junn sees Richard cooking bacon using chopsticks, it's the moment when she may finally begin to like him. Along the way Alan fades from the picture and Richard and Junn stop saying "tell him" or "tell her" or "don't translate that" and speaking to each other directly, with or without translation. Eventually the unspoken is either spoken, or understood. Or perhaps the gap can never be bridged. Things take the expected course, nonetheless. This film has been accused of being "methodical" and "almost noxiously sincere." Restraint, taste, and sensitivity may be its greatest faults as well as its most admirable virtues.

Lilting, mins., debuted at Sundance January 2014 (winning a cinematography prize), showing at various international fests, opening 26 September in NYC, through Strand Releasing. Watched for this review on an online screener. Strand releases it on DVD 10 February 2015, and it should work well in small format.

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