Starring: Ben Whishaw, Pei-pei Cheng, Peter Bowles
Junn (Pei-pei) is a Cambodian Chinese woman living in an elderly care home in England which she has always hated, while also mourning the untimely death of her son Kai (Andrew Leung), and still unable to speak a single word of English. Her quiet life is further disrupted when Kai’s boyfriend Richard (Whishaw) visits her in her home, however she never liked him when Kai was alive and was also completely unaware of Kai’s sexuality, let alone the actual details of his relationship with Richard. In an attempt to look after Junn and get to know her better, Richard hires a translator (Naomi Christie) so the two can get to know each other better and to help Junn talk to a fellow resident at care home that she has become very close to called Alan (Bowles). However, though Richard’s good intentions seem sometimes misguided, the two of them eventually start to reach some kind of mutual understanding in their shared grief despite the huge barrier in language and culture.
Though the concept of the narrative alone may not seem particularly original, writer/ director Hong Khaou’s approach is a delicately observed, compelling and sometimes surprising examination of love, grief and loneliness. With its naturalistic and raw approach, Lilting is put together in a way that avoids the obvious clichés that perhaps a bigger budget film examining these themes would constantly rely on and emerges as a far more emotionally rewarding film for it.
Lilting is a film that if performed on the stage, hardly any adjustments would need to be made, and though the narrative can sometimes feel episodic, its intimate and naturalistic approach to its themes make it compelling viewing. We genuinely share the feelings of isolation of the two characters as the scenes of them talking to each other through an interpreter are played out in essentially what is real time. Though facial expressions and tone of voice make it obvious that these characters share deep feelings of grief, it is still extremely difficult for each character to communicate and define their exact feelings and emotions to one another, particularly about one another, even through an interpreter. Though scenes are subtitled, many are not and we share the anxieties of Richard as he hears Junn’s response and is desperately waiting to hear the translation of it, though as always, things do inevitably get lost in translation. Sometimes the eye contact the two characters make explains more than any translated words could.
What adds to the authenticity of Khaou’s film is that, as in life, there can always be comedy in the most tragic of situations. The main reason for Richard hiring a translator is to help Junn’s relationship with Alan, and though it may at first seem like an unnecessary subplot, its involvement is fully justified in the narrative as it brings unexpected and genuinely hilarious results. It also adds to the notion we have all experienced in that sometimes the best of intentions can simply make things worse, and it plays a huge part in the deeply emotional involvement of the film’s wonderfully written and emotionally satisfying final third.
A character driven film like this requires great performances, and the entire cast are on top form. The always excellent Ben Whishaw delivers an emotionally committed performance that is equally matched by Pei-pei Cheng who captures with quiet dignity the extreme loss that her character has experienced perfectly, with both emerging as sympathetic and engaging characters. The supporting characters are also very well played; with Peter Bowles emerging as extremely likeable and genuinely funny as Alan and Naomi Christie excellent as the translator. Though it is admittedly hard to understand why at times she continues to tolerate being in the middle of such an emotionally charged situation that she ultimately has no part of, her character often represents the role of the audience and though her character may be sometimes at the mercy of the narrative, she too emerges as a very sympathetic character.
Though slow in pace and dialogue heavy, Lilting is still very cinematic with an unconventional narrative structure and intentional jump-cuts and continuity errors that make the whole narrative feel like it is about mood. The camerawork is superb and Khaou crafts together some truly beautiful shots. Lilting is ultimately the perfect balance of raw storytelling and cinematic craft that creates an immersive visual experience and an emotionally satisfying one, and in this day and age, that is something to saviour!
A wonderfully written and beautifully observed drama; Lilting is a raw film of emotional authenticity that tugs at the heart strings and perfectly captures all the emotions of any real life situation; it is funny and sad, frustrating and heartbreaking, but is ultimately a very human drama that is both emotionally immersive and rewarding.