Director: Hong Khaou
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Cheng Pei Pei, Naomi Christie, Andrew Leung, Peter Bowles
I have chosen to review the recent feature film Lilting to celebrate LGBT History Month, the first feature from London-based filmmaker Hong Khaou. Starring the endearing Ben Whishaw as Richard, Lilting tells the story of the how Richard copes when his partner Kai dies suddenly, and how he longs to share his grief with Kai’s Cambodian-Chinese mother, Junn. They do not share a common language, but Richard recruits an amateur translator who struggles to bring Richard’s profound grief to light without dealing with the secret we dance around- that Kai was gay.
The film, although clouded in grief and sorrow from beginning to end, is utterly charming. You are locked into a time warp with Kai’s mother, Junn, expertly played by Pei-pei Cheung, with heartbreaking dreamy flashbacks of Kai visiting her, that arrive unannounced to break into her day. Whishaw is greeted with frosty suspicion, and he hovers in the background, keen to hold onto any link with the ultimate love of his life. Set in contemporary London, we flit between Richard’s hectic flat and the vintage-themed care home Junn now resides in, which brings a dark comic tinge to the scenes as the characters remain unnerved and uncomfortable during the first visits.
The struggle to connect the two vastly conflicting cultures of modern day London and Junn’s traditional Chinese background palpitates throughout the film, with a concluding crescendo which burns brightly and passionately, breaking the barriers between Richard and Junn. At last, a common language is found in the grief that they share for the person they most cared about.
I chose this film because it is so much more than a film about two protagonists playing out a LGBT relationship as, indeed, that part of the narrative has already happened. It’s a universal love story centred around grief and an all-inhabiting relationship. In the way that audiences turn to Brief Encounter or Roman Holiday as their go-to classic romance, I also go to Lilting. Dealing with a subject as profound and tragic as the loss of the ‘one great love’ as delicately and as interestingly as it does is a real success, especially for a first feature. We are also able to see the struggles that Kai had with the lack of cultural understanding about his relationship within his family, which is both fascinating and significant for modern audiences. The struggle to come out to his family was a very real one, and how much did he have to sacrifice in order to keep this a secret? With such a young death, it seems to drive home to view that it’s so much better to live openly and honestly, especially as his mother fully embraces her son and his life by the end of her journey in the film.