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Intriguing relationship dynamics and an intensely moving performance from Ben Whishaw as a bereaved gay man drive Lilting, an intimate drama about two strangers unable to communicate but drawn together by the common language of grief. Delicate and unhurried almost to a fault, though also hauntingly sexy and even humorous at times, this debut from Cambodian-born, London-based writer-director Hong Khaou wears its stylistic debt to In the Mood for Love on its elegant sleeve. But the gentle study of loss builds quiet emotional power, shifting between uncomfortable reality and a sorrowful memory-plane that bridges life and death.
Language is the key element in this film, set in contemporary London, to the amusing extent that an interpreter is a crucial player who oversteps her boundaries by becoming personally involved. So it’s interesting that Khaou strips away almost all extraneous information, until unspoken feeling — between long-term partners, flirtatious sweethearts, friends or family — becomes the only language that matters. We learn remarkably little about the central characters beyond how they relate to one another. Even the cause of the untimely death that sets the drama in motion remains undisclosed until minutes before the film ends.
Whishaw plays Richard, whose ashen face and hollow-eyed devastation reveal his profound pain at losing Kai (Andrew Leung), his boyfriend of more than four years. Kai’s Chinese-Cambodian mother, Junn (Pei-pei Cheng), wears her grief with stoicism but feels it no less acutely. Perhaps she’s even more alone given that she has never learned English or assimilated into life in London, and Kai was her sole conduit to the world. She spends her days in an assisted-living facility, replaying conversations with her son that appear both real and imagined, or allowing herself to be romanced by the resident Casanova, Alan (Peter Bowles).
Kept in the dark by Kai about his homosexuality and the true nature of his relationship with Richard, Junn resents her son’s “friend,” petulantly resisting his gestures of kindness when he starts showing up to visit. In an attempt to help her fill the void left by Kai, he hires Vann (Naomi Christie) to translate during the old woman’s afternoons with Alan. This yields minor-key comedy when mutual understanding proves not quite as conducive to the couple’s harmony as communication-free canoodling.
While Vann might seem just a functional tool in the plot mechanics, Christie plays her endearingly, especially in moments of inadvertent meddlesomeness as she tries to nudge Junn to a fuller understanding of what Kai and Richard meant to each other. But the woman’s dislike for her son’s partner melts strictly in its own time and by infinitesimal degrees, her stubbornness causing deep distress to Richard.
Khaou smartly avoids excessive sentiment by limiting their mutual understanding, making it explicit enough to clarify the situation without forcing breakthroughs that would be out of character for Junn. If that makes for a somewhat muted payoff, there are nonetheless many poignant moments, notably in Richard’s recollections of his time with Kai. Whether lazing around in bed together or arguing over Kai’s reluctance to come out to his lonely mother and involve her more in their lives, these scenes are played with a tenderness that resonates throughout the film.
The emotional nakedness of Whishaw’s performance is without doubt Khaou’s biggest asset, even if his character’s selflessness and unwavering sense of responsibility border on sainthood. The actor lends substance to a film of such gossamer airiness that, without him, it might simply float away. But Cheng (a long way from her martial arts past, which includes playing Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) also registers touching warmth and humanity, long before she finally lets down her guard. And her scenes with Bowles’ horny old geezer pack considerable charm. “Your whole body smells of urine” might go down as the ultimate romantic mood-killer.
Ula Pontikos‘ cinematography shows an eye for serene compositions, using the vintage wallpaper of the old folks’ home or the wintry landscape that surrounds it to add visual texture. Lots of probing close-ups also help to provide emotional access to the characters. Editor Mark Towns weaves with lucidity among past, present and the softening filter of memory, resulting in a meditative film of grace and sensitivity that satisfies on its own modest terms.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Pei-pei Cheng, Andrew Leung, Morven Christie, Naomi Christie, Peter Bowles
Production companies: Film London, Microwave Film, in association with BBC Films, Stink Films, Sums Film & Media
Director-screenwriter: Hong Khaou
Producer: Dominic Buchanan
Executive producers: Steve Jenkins, Robert Herman, Daniel Bergmann, Andy Brunskill, Robert Benton, Simon Flamank
Director of photography: Ula Pontikos
Production designer: Miren Maranon
Music: Stuart Earl
Costume designer: Camille Benda
Editor: Mark Towns
Sales: Protagonist Pictures
No rating, 86 minutes.
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