Lilting is an elegant portrait. It is a paean to love, loss and loneliness that has the power more of a play than a slight, low-budget independent film. Credit is due to director Hong Khaou that on a budget beneath £120,000, he realises a complexly interwoven narrative that deals affectingly with a wide range of themes. For a film ostensibly on the subject of homosexuality and death, Khaou uses this platform as a springboard to explore memory and language.
The themes are broad, but are not idly thrown at the screen in a miasma of conflicting creative ideas. Undoubtedly, the glue to bind this catalogue comes in the form of Ben Whishaw’s Richard. Richard is a moniker previously adopted by Whishaw; in the guise of Shakespeare’s “skipping king”, the hopelessly inept, raffish and waifish, Richard II in the BBC’s Hollow Crown adaptation. Reigning camp in the castle, Whishaw achieved the rare feat of imbuing a loathsome, self-consciously narcissistic character with a tender delicacy that delivered the true tragedy of a divinely elected monarch forced to abdicate under the weight of his own ineptitude. Lilting’s Richard is the product of a Richard II inversion. Strip all the sense of excess and performance, retain the self-conscious trait, but transform this into an introverted, grieving gay modern man and you find our Richard.
Richard is struggling to come to terms with the loss of Kai (Andrew Leung) whose sudden death leaves our protagonist bereft; his only inheritance in the form of a dependent: Kai’s Chinese-Cambodian mother, Junn (Cheng Pei-Pei). Junn speaks six languages but English is not one, despite her twenty nine years resident in the UK, leading translator Vann (Naomi Christie) to exclaim: “lazy bitch”. Christie’s translator is the prism through which Khaou explores language as a medium for communication and connection. While Richard seeks out Vann’s aid to develop the budding old folks’ home romance between Junn, and a top form Peter Bowles as predator pensioner, Alan, Vann in reality becomes the link between Richard and Junn. Khaou’s work is an investigation into the limits of language. It is not a freeing force, but forms fetters that incarcerate rather than liberate its exponents.
The film’s light relief is Vann’s uncomfortable involvement in the Alan and Junn’s platonic love affair. Brought in to help the couple get to know each other better, Vann in fact becomes the dividing force over petty squabbling ranging from amatory habits (bum-pinching) to garlic breath. Vann’s presence enables the film’s most comedic moment as she delivers Viagra to Alan (not that Peter Bowles’ bowels need much ignition judging by this seedy performance). At the opposite end of the spectrum, Lilting presents the heart-wrenching reality of memory and loss. Khaou’s experimentation with the cinematography enables a blending of dream and reality within a single sequence that successfully renders the disjointed thought processes of mourning. In a single shot we can zoom from Kai and Richard’s past romance to a weeping Richard now alone in a lonely bed. The film opens with Junn and Kai’s final meeting; Khaou renders the opening half soliloquy, half daydream, when Kai vanishes as a phantom vestige of memory, Junn disturbed by the door opening. The conflation of fact and fiction achieves an elegant dissection of grief. Although the film uses its lighter material to douse the more serious scenes, it is the latter that distinguish Lilting.
Again, Vann is the link-woman, but between Richard and Junn she has an impossible task. Not only has Kai’s premature death left Richard with the emotional inheritance of a dependent quasi-mother-in-law, Junn, Kai took staying in the closet to such an extent that the closet became a coffin. As such, Richard is nothing more than Kai’s ‘best friend’ and flatmate of whom Junn is both jealous and has formed a dispassionate loathing. Vann’s duty as a translator becomes that of a diplomatic peace-keeper between the passive-aggressive pairing, while simultaneously engaging in a politique protection of Kai and Richard’s true identity as a couple of four years vintage. Despite all Vann’s best efforts, it is something beyond words that triggers the détente in Junn and Richard’s relationship. The power of the eyes as a symbol for contact is the film’s most obvious and effective recurring visual. It is testament to Whishaw that through his fleeting tilts of the head and scurrying, furtive glances towards Junn he communicates so much discomfort without resorting to scripted lines. Unlike a game of charades, however, there is no definitive end point to this spiral of suspense as the truth just does not out itself.
Until, in Lilting’s climactic scene the two finally make eye contact and speak openly. Only Whishaw speaks English and Junn replies in her native tongue, while translator Vann sits idly beside. Language is left defunct by the primal, power of human feeling as the pair transfer sentiment with a clarity as yet unseen, but now brought into focus through their eye contact. Lilting successfully deconstructs language as the key to human understanding. Sitting in a screen in Seville, watching a Cambodian directed, British sponsored film starring a Chinese woman, who needs the same language to communicate effectively anyway; we are all human.