Note: I saw this film at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, but never got around to posting my review because of sheer inconvenience. Here it is in full.
Many queer films of recent times have chosen to focus on tragedy, specifically the loss of a partner and the impact it could have on the protagonist. One of the films I find does it best is Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man, capturing every ounce of pain that Colin Firth’s lead character experiences over the span of a day he spends contemplating suicide. Even some arguably more mainstream films such as Brokeback Mountain explore the theme to a much smaller level, with the film’s last act.
Much like A Single Man, writer-director Hong Khaou’s feature debut Lilting also takes place after the passing on Kai (Andrew Leung), a young queer man who was loved immensely by those closest to him. The film focuses on two of those individuals grieving their loss in fairly different ways, each trying to find some semblance of solace. One is his partner Richard (Ben Whishaw), and the other is Junn, the mother he kept unaware of his sexuality (Cheng Pei-pei).
People grieve in incredibly different manners, just as they choose to remember someone they’ve lost in different ways. Lilting is about exactly that: a mother and a lover grieving for the man they both loved in ways they can’t quite place into words. In the film, Richard chooses to remember his partner, not only be dreaming of him and recalling memories from their past, but by doing some of the things he longed to do in his life. He approaches Kai’s mother with nothing but love — even though she only believes he’s a friend — and attempts to take care of her and find her a way to communicate with those around her. Junn, in turn, remembers her son much differently. Far more set in her ways, she initially doesn’t find much love in her heart for this friend doing her favors. She imagines scenarios with her son visiting her and talking with her, and while most films would depict this as senility, Khang presents this reaction as just as reasonable as Richard’s straight-forward memories.At times it’s difficult to know whether the moment is from the past or simply a fictive present, and that’s a true testament to how great a result he gets by blending imagination and memory.
The scenes shown of Kai and Richard’s relationship emit an intimacy that’s hard to find in queer cinema. There’s a bit of the realness that Weekend had when they interact (courtesy of the talented cinematographer, Urszula Pontikos, on both films), but the quiet tenderness of the film as a whole is more akin to that of the great Wong Kar-wai. Khang’s debut isn’t nearly as colorful or tightly edited as his work can be — the slow, repetitive fading out of a scene being one of the only frustrating features Lilting carries — but the atmosphere that Khaou creates nails the aesthetic of the established director. Watching Junn sit and listen to “Yao Yao Bai Bai” (which most will realize is a Mandarin cover of “Sway”) after Richard procures it for her is as captivating as watching the two men lay in bed together discussing life. But where much of the film is about keeping the memory of those we’ve lost alive, there’s another layer to it, and that’s the barrier of language.
Certain films, like Lost in Translation — a film I love but acknowledge as problematic at times —choose to make light of of the language barriers that come between people in a foreign land. Lilting refuses to make light of that situation, as Junn is a woman trapped in a London elderly living center with no common language to interact with those around her. Even when the film utilizes humor in scenes where translation is essential for communication, none of it comes off as mean-spirited or at the expense of any character. There’s difficulty in discussion, but the inclusion of a translator facilitates this. The translator’s presence leads to amusing dates, dinner conversations, and confessions of love that would otherwise be impossible. But even though the barrier of language can be broken, that between life and death cannot. It is because of this that the characters in the film are so reliant on remembering the dead man they loved; their memories of him are all they have left.
Lilting is one of few queer narratives this year that shows a genuine love for its characters. The film’s themes of isolation don’t simply stem from feeling out of place due to a language barrier, but are almost reflective of the way that many queer people find it hard to ever find a place they feel comfortable. A solemn reaction to death is only natural, and with queer film as bloated with camp fare as it is, it’s refreshing to see another filmmaker exploring how hard it is to connect with someone you’re so unfamiliar with in a way that isn’t at all melodramatic. If Lilting is what Hong Khaou’s feature debut looks like, I can’t wait to see what he brings us next.
Directed by Hong Khaou; written by Hong Khaou; starring Ben Whishaw, Cheng Pei-pei, Andrew Leung, Morven Christie, Peter Bowles; 86 minutes.