There’s a scene in “Lilting,” writer/director Hong Khaou’s feature film debut, where Junn (Cheng Pei-Pei), an elderly Chinese-Cambodian woman, dances with Alan (Peter Bowles), her English sort-of boyfriend who lives in the same nursing home in London. They do not share a common language, but Junn speaks softly anyway. The cheery, old-fashioned music fades into something shapelessly melancholy, and Junn whispers anxiously about having moved to England to give her son a better life. Oblivious, Alan kisses her hands and dances closer as her recollections grow more desperate: “Five years later we’re English people, but I’m not English!” Suddenly Alan becomes Kai (Andrew Leung), Junn’s adult son, and he promises to take her out of there and let her move in with him. She hugs him close; that’s all she wanted.
Unfortunately, when the song comes to an end, she’s dancing with Alan. Kai is dead, and Junn is alone in a foreign country.
Moving and lyrical, “Lilting” begins with the revelation that Kai has recently died, leaving Junn childless, alone and heartbroken. Her solitary grief is interrupted by Richard (Ben Whishaw), Kai’s British boyfriend. Though Junn has always resented him (knowing him only as Kai’s “friend” and roommate) for having monopolized her son’s attention, Richard feels responsible for Junn and wants to take care of her however he can. In an effort to make her happy and forge a relationship with her, Richard hires a translator, Vann (Naomi Christie), to enable him to reach out to her about the loss of Kai and facilitate Junn and Alan’s budding relationship.
Whishaw, who has made a name for himself as a romantic soul in such literary fare as “Brideshead Revisited,” “Bright Star” and “The Tempest,” is the best part of “Lilting.” Trying to do right by the love of his life but ready to crack under the inherited pressure at any moment, Whishaw’s sensitive performance gives “Lilting” its emotional intensity. Cheng (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) is actually a Chinese martial arts legend — so what is she doing in this quiet and intimate drama? Just as she is convincing and affecting as a mother crushed by grief, there is a toughness to her that must come with the territory of being Hong Kong’s “Queen of Swords” — and that befits a woman who has had to live half her life in a foreign country, where she doesn’t speak the language or understand the culture. For his part, Leung has excellent chemistry with both Whishaw and Cheng, and charm to spare — it’s not hard to see why Richard and Junn are both so heartbroken over him.
Richard and Junn’s inability to communicate goes beyond a language barrier, as Richard fails to comprehend what he sees as Junn’s refusal to assimilate to English culture, and Junn doesn’t even know that her son was gay — much less that he and Richard were a couple — and doesn’t understand why Richard feels entitled to be as devastated as she is. The only thing that didn’t ring entirely true was Junn’s relationship with Alan. While their cultural differences and difficulties communicating did highlight Junn’s terrible loneliness, that part of the plot lingers on too long, to the point where the once-welcome humor of their interactions feels out of place, distracting from the main story of Junn and Richard’s relationship.
Khaou has a profound sense of rhythm — an attention that, I imagine, gives the film its title. In flashbacks from both of Kai’s grieving loved ones, dialogue that may or may not have ever been said is layered over apparently silent actors, suggesting not so much a linear, literal moment as an impression of one as it is remembered, set to loving voices rather than music. Those flashbacks also circle back to the same scenes and details over and over — Junn relives the same conversations; Richard recycles Kai’s dialogue and wears his old clothes. Their memories of Kai play and replay like a sweet, sad melody you wish you could get out of your head, but never want to forget. As it turns out, love and grief, like music, can never really be lost in translation.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Not yet picked up for US distribution after its opening night at Sundance, “Lilting” could definitely still get a limited release deal in the States, though probably not do major business. It will likely fare better in its native UK.