Tuesday, July 22, 2014

'Lilting' (2014) directed by Hong Khaou

Set in a perpetually overcast Hackney, Lilting is a delicately painted argument that the most fundamental human emotions exist somewhere beyond language.  In this case it's grief, loss and depression that provides the fuel for an unlikely, fractious friendship between two people; Richard (Ben Whishaw) and Junn (Pei-pei Cheng).  Richard is a.... 

...hang on a minute....

Pei-pei Cheng?  THE Pei-pei Cheng?  The Lady of Steel?  The Iron Princess? THE QUEEN OF SWORDS?!  This Pei-pei Cheng?

Wow! Alright where was I?

Oh yeah.  So Richard is the epitome of metropolitan life; he's trendy, fashionable, hangs out in all the right coffee shops and has a beautifully tasteful run-down house in what looks like Cambridge Heath.  Junn is an elderly Cambodian immigrant living a depressed life in an old people's home.  She speaks very little English, looks isolated and apparently spends her days counting down the hours until the Grim Reaper comes a-knockin'.

Bringing them together is the character of Kai.  He's Junn's beloved son, responsible for her being in the UK and obsessed with making sure she's provided for.  As the film opens we see them happily making small-talk about the minutia of their lives.  Their mutual love is palpable, though there's an undercurrent of unhappiness from the mother at being 'abandoned' in a nursing home.  As conversation rambles on a nurse suddenly enters the room and, in a perfectly executed panning shot, we realise that Junn has been talking to herself.

Kai is dead.  Hit by a car.  Now, left alone, her only regular visitor is Richard, Kai's best friend.  But of course he's not his best friend, he's Kai's bereaved partner.  Unable to out Kai to his mother even in death, he feels responsible towards her - though she's confused as to why Richard cares so much.  Eventually he hires an interpreter that allows them to converse, and the two very gradually form an uneasy bond.

Kai and Richard
Lilting is a purposefully slow, desaturated and flatly shot piece of cinema.  Khaou clearly understands the psychic numbness that comes with loss, endeavouring to make his cinematic world as muted as possible.  Everything from the hideous 1960s wallpaper in the nursing home to the alabaster white skin of Richard and Kai as they lie in bed together combines to create a rather depressing vision of a world where all hope is lost.

The few bright spots in the story come from Alan (Peter Bowles) and Vann (Naomi Christie).  Alan and Junn are a rather cute couple in the nursing home, getting on well even though they can't communicate directly with each other.  Richard decides the best way to cheer up Junn is to hire an interpretor, Vann, to translate.  Bowles gives the role a great deal curmudgeonly charm, making this geriatric romance rather sweet and uplifting in the middle of all this gloom.

As Vann becomes increasingly involved in the drama between Richard and Junn, she translates more and more.  The cinematic result of that is quite interesting, breaking up the rhythm of a normal movie conversation.  It's a way of clearly delineating reaction from response, the gap necessitated by translation allowing us to focus on the actor's physical and not what they're saying.  Both Whishaw and Cheng exploit this dynamic beautifully, the method adding a ton of tension to the fraught final scenes. 

That wallpaper is just awful.
Lilting is very much an actor's movie - one of ponderous conversations, revelations and gradual character development.  Whishaw in particular embodies that stage in a man's life where he realises, once and for all, that he is no longer officially young.  In his grief he's shouldered some very mature burdens; and with the death of his partner he has nowhere to direct his newfound desire for responsibility - Junn being the most obvious and worthwhile outlet.

Meanwhile Cheng's Junn bears the burden of constantly lying to herself.  You're never quite sure whether she secretly knows her dead son is gay or if she really is naive to the whole deal.  I'd like to give the character the benefit of the doubt - her performance is infused with a weird, naked truth that indicates she'd hate to lie to herself.  My favourite moments in the film are all her - when she nods in approval as she notices Richard frying bacon with chopsticks, or her sharply felt shock and anger at being denied her son's ashes. 
I had no idea Cheng has transitioned so smoothly into straight dramatic roles and though a small part of me was hoping for her to break into an orgy of bloody swordfighting, she fills the screen with the same ironclad inner strength that made her so compelling as a basher of heads and slicer-offer of limbs.

Hong Khaou's style is the cinematic equivalent of a rainy, hungover Sunday afternoon. Lilting is often a bit of a downer, but it's a sensitive movie that has the confidence to proceed at its own pace.  I suspect that for some audiences the stately, melancholy drama will translate into straight-up boredom, but I was enthralled from start to finish.  It's an unassuming little movie, yet what Khaou has to say about the universal nature of grieving, and how bonds form regardless of cultural or language barriers rings true. 


Lilting is released August 8th

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