Is grief felt differently by people of different cultures, ages or backgrounds? And when tragedy does strike, how do you communicate grief across those barriers?
Debut feature “Lilting” by Cambodian-born Hong Khaou addresses these questions in a small personal tale of love and loss and shows that those barriers are but ideas – we are all humans and thus, there is no need to translate our emotions.
Elderly Chinese widow, Junn (Pei Pei Cheng) lives in an old person’s home that looks like it has been frozen in the 1950s – it makes old people feel young again. Junn only speaks Chinese; she never tried nor wanted to assimilate into the British culture. For her, the house is a prison. Her son Kai (Andrew Leung) promised it would be just a temporary solution, but he never came back. Kai died in a car accident a few months ago. Now, Junn is visited by Richard (Ben Whishaw), Kai’s boyfriend. When he died, Kai was on his way to meet his mother and bring her over to dinner, during which he would have come out to her. Junn still does not know her son was gay, so Richard tries hard to hide the truth whilst struggling with his own grief. Kai was his life. Meanwhile, Junn has met aged-Casanova Alan (Peter Bowles), one of the gentlemen at the care home. The two have been enjoying a platonic romance despite the language barriers.
Richard decides to hire Vann (Naomi Christie), a Chinese speaker to help translate conversations between Alan and Junn. Vann inevitably gets involved in the emotional conflict involving Junn’s stubborn dislike for Richard, despite all his attempts to make her feel like family. Richard has a breakdown – will he ever be able to tell Junn about his love for her son Kai?
Lilting is a beautiful and delicate portrayal of human relationships when faced with the agony of a loved one’s death. The screenplay, written by Khaou himself, takes place in the past as well as in the present – which sometimes features Junn’s recollections of her son. Those flashbacks are so natural and so well embedded in the story and editing of the film that they create the sense of a ‘lilting’ passage from scene to scene, from past to present and vice versa without interrupting the action. The cast gives extraordinary performances. The always-marvellous Ben Whishaw delivers a heart-wrenching impression of love beyond one’s death and the struggle to pick up the pieces and keep moving on. However, the focus of the film is without doubt the mother-figure Pei Pei Cheng – her grief is never shouted out, it is in fact quite restrained, but not in the least less powerful because of that. She embodies a strong woman who knows she will suffer daily for the loss of her son but that does not prevent her from fighting in order to keep living and feeling.
Hong Khaou created a true gem which ties strong emotions, humour and romance all together. We will certainly look forward to his next work.
Lilting is in cinemas now and available on demand.