Lilting — Three is not a crowd
Lilting in a nutshell: Balance. Writer-director Hong Khaou’s first feature film is a remarkable exercise in restraint. The film, released in 2014, stars an intense, but not overwhelmingly so, Ben Whishaw, struggling to connect with his recently deceased boyfriend’s Cambodian mother. Without a common language to rely on, they are forced to communicate with the help of a young translator, turning what would be your run-of-the-mill dialogues into something of cinematic beauty.
The plot is simple and, at the same time, unusual. In London, a Cambodian mother, Pei-pei Cheng as Junn, living at a retirement home, recently lost her son. The woman, completely oblivious to the fact that her son was gay, is visited by a young man, who she believes was her son’s friend, and nothing more. Richard (Ben Wishaw), while visiting in an attempt to share their mutual feelings of loss, discovers that Junn has met a gentleman (Peter Bowles as Alan), also resident at the home. From here on, we watch as a determined Richard goes to great lengths trying to help Junn overcome the loss of her son and help her overcome the cultural differences with Alan, the infatuated gentleman. There is a slight problem, though. Junn, despite speaking a handful of languages, has always refused to learn English. Relentless Richard, however, will not throw in the towel and engages an amateur translator who will help both him and Alan to communicate with Junn.
Lilting is a contemplative film. Wait, don’t give up just yet. Read on. It’s an introspective film, yes, but not one of those where the characters stare into the void for so long that you start to wonder if they are mentally making their grocery list. No, it has just the right amount of down time to allow things to sink in. Hong Khaou successfully balanced deep periods of reflection with sharp and tense dialogues, keeping the audience interested at all times. And, what could be overly melodramatic is actually just right. The use of a proxy, such as the translator, along with not having subtitles for most of the Mandarin parts of the dialogue, allowed the director to avoid the old-fashioned, sentimental lines that usually come when dealing with the loss of a loved one. Instead, we have clean, straight to the point dialogues, and the dramatic effect is mostly achieved by the awkwardness of the situation itself.
The actor’s work is also on par. Ben Wishaw, even though he may be a bit too prone to tears, cleverly flirts with melodrama without ever fully embracing it. As for Naomi Christie, the translator, she gives a solid performance without overstepping her boundaries as a support character. Pei-Pei Cheng, the veteran actress does a remarkable job. The film would not be the same without the dramatic effect she is able to convey mainly through body language. And, without subtitles, it is incredible how she is able to grab our attention each and every time she speaks. The final piece is Alan. Peter Bowles managed to create a character that is both dramatic and serves as comic relief. It is mainly his fault that the film does not become repetitive and, when you think you’re about to yawn, there he goes, saying something silly or out of place. But, again, he does it with great restraint. But is it perfect? The short answer is no. There is little to no character development, and although I would not go as far as to say it has some serious plot holes, I do believe that some parts of the plot seem tenuous.
But if you can get past the naivety and the lack of fully developed characters, you may find yourself enjoying a beautiful film, with quality photography work and good use of the soundtrack. It is an uncanny portrait of how language and culture can bring people closer and push them away, simultaneously.