Ahead of today’s Discover Tuesdays presentation of LILTING, Phil Guy – Marketing Manager at The Ritzy – reviews the highly acclaimed drama.
Cambodian filmmaker Hong Khaou’s quietly accomplished debut centres on the sudden and unexpected death of Kai (Andrew Leung), long-time partner and lover to Richard (Ben Whishaw) and doting son to his aging mother, Junn (Pei-pei Cheng). The film follows Richard’s strained attempts to reach out to Junn, who is reluctant and suspicious of his intentions, while remaining in the dark over his true relationship with Kai.
Resentful of her perceived abandonment in a nursing home, Junn is a woman isolated by barriers of both culture and language; she speaks no English, and Richard’s exchanges with her are only made possible through the presence of a Chinese-speaking translator, Vann (Naomi Christie). Conducted in the musty, nostalgic 50s/60s décor of the care home, Richard attempts to broach the long-neglected truth of Kai’s sexuality, not only to address Junn’s crucially incomplete picture of her son, but also to share grief with her despite their inability to share the same language.
Littered with hesitance and misunderstanding, the formal and nervous arrangement of Richard and Junn’s multilingual conversations, with help from the translator, serves not only to indicate the coming together of two people that are worlds apart, but also to highlight the limitations of language in communicating grief. Language struggles to encapsulate heightened feelings of loss, as the film shows us, but with the added obstacle of translation, it becomes nigh-on impossible.
Taking stylistic cues from Chinese filmmaker Kar-wai Wong – most notably Wong’s modern classic IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE – the film addresses time in a wistful, elliptical fashion. It’s unclear how much time separates each of Richard and Junn’s encounters, as one scene eases itself fluidly into the next, or otherwise sinks into one of Richard’s personal memories of Kai before his death. Through this technique of shifting time-frames and personal recollections, memory finds itself tangled inseparably with reality in LILTING, and it’s these brief visions of Kai that do far more to convey the weight of Richard’s grief than any exchange in dialogue ever could.
With a debut exploring themes of memory, loss and language, there’s every reason to anticipate Hong Khaou as being a contemplative and mature new voice in cinema. Ben Whishaw’s fragile and quietly devastating performance is a testament to the strength of this particular strand of cinema, where things that are left unspoken can resonate just as powerfully as those that are.