Directed by Hong Khaou
A young man of Chinese-Cambodian descent dies, leaving behind his isolated mother and his lover of four years. Though the two don't share a language, they grow close through their grief.
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★★★★½ review by Vanina on Letterboxd
Unbelievably stunning, moving film. It's so rare for style and substance to go so beautifully hand-in-hand, reflecting and merging as the film goes on.
The two most important people in Kai's life, his mother and boyfriend, are left with a gaping hole in their lives after his sudden death. Although they are the two people who most cared for him, they struggle to reach each other as they are kept apart by language, personal assumptions and cultural differences.
The film beautifully captures how difficult it is for these two people to reach out to each other, and it depicts the many factors keeping them apart. The way this film plays with language, translation, interpretation and meaning is beyond anything I've ever seen, and as the viewer you are experiencing some of the same struggles as Junn and Richard, without becoming one of those excrutiating arthouse excercises in being difficult. As some dialogue is left unsubtitled, you're left to wonder just as Junn and Richard are, while at other moments you're set on the wrong foot by vivid memories. There's so many layers to unpick, it washes over you brilliant wave after brilliant wave. And then, I've not even mentioned the way it depicts grief, sadness, longing, love. It's a film about communication first.
It's the most accurate depiction of human communication I've ever seen on screen - it's about how it flows or stops, how honesty is not always best, how understanding comes on different levels, how difficult it is to understand yourself sometimes, how something can come out different from how you planned it, how things can be interpreted in different ways, how there are endless ways to feel about something and to say something, how some things are communicated unspoken or through touch.
★★★★ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd
Hong Khaou's debut feature film is some effort, a quietly affecting film that touches on a number of subjects from love and loss, to sexuality and cultural divides. It is aided in no small part by fantastic performances from Pei-pei Cheng and Ben Whishaw (remember Q from Skyfall?) working from Khaou's sincere script that approaches these heavy subjects with the tenderness and respect they deserve.
We first see Junn (Cheng) in the retirement home where most of the film is set, in conversation with her son Kai. Almost immediately their bond feels genuine, the rhythmic flow of their mother/son conversation flowing naturally. We learn that Kai has died, his mother seemingly left to see out her days alone, while boyfriend Richard attempts to gently find a way to reveal why he has got in contact. Junn never knew her son was gay and as she speaks no English, Richard faces an uphill back to overcome the communication divide.
The film really boils down to and relies heavily on the two actors portraying their characters in subtle, restrictive tones. Their sadness is hidden behind pauses and sighs, emotive eye contact and honesty in their words. Richards deep respect for Junn's culture is a genuine yet frustrating barrier for what he ultimately wants to reveal so he can share the memories of Kai, try to help his mother. There is jealousy over feeling she had to share her son with his 'best friend' and wonders why he has come now, of all times, to offer assistance.
Khaou's script reflects the complex nature of their relationship, the hidden emotions and those they cannot cover up. Richard employs Vann, a British Asian woman who can speak Cantonese, first of all to allow Junn and her retirement home 'boyfriend' Alan (played wonderful by Peter Bowles, still going at the ripe old age of 78) a way of communicating with each other. It allows a chance for Richard to show Kai's mother that his presence in her sons life was nothing less than heartfelt.
At times we are left on the periphery listening into foreign conversation we cannot understand, no subtitles on screen. We are placed in the shoes of these two people who share a common bond and the difficulties they must overcome to share it. The camera work and photography also belies the films budget very effectively so you never once are taken out of the moment by poor workmanship or cut corners.
There is so much to admire in this film and one will hope that some recognition is passed on when it comes to the domestic award season. Lilting is moving without relying purely on sentimentality and gracious in how it depicts those who find comfort in their sorrow. Real love and care has gone into making this more than just 80 minutes of tearful manipulation, rewarding the viewer with plenty to reflect on come the end.
★★★★★ review by Imogen on Letterboxd
You know when you just connect with certain films?
Well this was one of those times. Despite having little personal connection to the story or the characters (in that I haven't as yet experienced grief to the extreme shown), everything about this film just seemed to resonate in my mind. So much so that I'm going to see it again later today. Good old BFI.
Definitely going to follow Hong Khaou's film activity from now on. And once again, it seems the infamous Whishaw can do no wrong.
★★★★ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd
This is what I wanted from Andrew Haigh's 45 Years, a film that quietly and persuasively gets under the skin of grief, with a shadowy, classical look in place of Haigh's unlovely visual strategy of isolating his characters in the middle of empty space. In outline form, Hong Khaou's debut film sounds like it would end up choking on its own backlog of issues - aging, homosexuality, British Asian life, late-life romance, care homes - but Khaou wisely recognises that these characters have lived these themes for too long to be standing around speechifying about them.
What drives his characters apart is not their differences but their similarities. Ben Whishaw's Richard and Cheng Pei-pei's Junn are both linked by the loss of Andrew Leung's Kai, but Kai's quiet nature and status as a not-entirely-out gay man mean they both encountered a very different version of him. The controlling metaphor is the language barrier, and Khaou actually makes a kind of suspense out of the time lag in between something being said and something being translated. I particularly enjoyed the scrambled chronology, which keeps returning to sensual moments between Richard and Kai in an almost compulsive fashion, trapping you inside Richard's desire to retreat into his memories and avoid facing his loss.
★★★★★ review by Kevin Wight on Letterboxd
I can’t remember the last time a film’s title was such a good description of its feel. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but there is a gentle almost haze to this beautiful film that manages to evoke nostalgia for the love felt by a mother and a lover left behind; and the subtle but very real portrayal of grief they have to deal with in the present.
Made for a paltry £120,000, Lilting looks fantastic first off. It’s obviously been made with so much love, and apart from some beautifully done and unobtrusive tricks as the film jumbles flashback and the present, it is unfussy and allows the story to take centre stage.
British-Cambodian director Hong Khaou’s debut is an assured emotional chamber piece that is anchored by wonderful turns from Ben Wishaw (rapidly becoming a favourite of mine) as the lover of a young man (Andrew Leung) who has died (in initially unspecified circumstances). He tries to make the effort to visit the young man’s mother (Cheng Pei-Pei) in a residential home she now lives in. It was initially supposed to be a temporary arrangement but her son’s death has trapped her. She speaks six languages, but English isn’t one of them. The main crux of the film deals with the problems of communication. The main subtext being that some things can’t be spoken – namely that Wishaw was her son’s lover. He always refers to himself as a ‘friend’.
What is masterfully done is to hide from us whether the mother knows. She must surely suspect, but if she does she gives nothing away. The big emotional reveal that I felt must come never arrives, or if it does, it’s cloaked in that gorgeous haze that surrounds the film. It felt so much richer and satisfying than any trite epiphany.
I adored this film. I was deeply moved by its simplicity, its emotional depth, the strength of the performances, and its humanity.
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