With upmost compassion and disregarding the language barriers that may exist between people from opposite sides of the world, Hong Khaou made a film that
deals with a tragic death through the experience of those left behind grieving. In “Lilting,” Richard (Ben Whishaw) is a gay man who is trying to connect with his deceased partner’s
mother, Junn (Cheng Pei-pei). She is an elderly Cambodian woman who has never fully adapted to life in the U.K. Kai (Andrew Leung), her son, was her only link to the unknown outside world.
Now living in a nursing home, Junn has disconnected from everything around her, but Richard wants to help her find hope in the arms of a man. Their
relationship is complex not only because they don’t share a common language and a translator is needed, but also because Junn doesn’t know that Kai and
Richard were not friends, but lovers. Told with a luscious visual aesthetic, Khaou’s debut feature constructs a picture of a man between the past and the
present from the memories of the two people he loved the most. Elegantly directed, heartbreaking, and deeply nuanced, “Lilting” is an emotionally poignant
love letter that doesn’t care for words in any language. It’s a poem build of wordless love verses written in heartfelt images.
“Lilting” is now playing in NYC and L.A. and its being distributed by Strand Releasing.
Carlos Aguilar: In “Lilting” emotion seems to be more important than language. Was this idea of a common way to connect without words something that intrigued you?
Hong Khaou: I wanted to think about the emotions as a theme more than focusing on plot. Emotion is a language. Therefore, one of the things I was exploring was
communication. Communication brings back understanding and acceptance and bridges cultural differences. Equally, it highlights differences so strongly that
it can even cause conflict. Thinking about communication and language, emotion is very much a language that’s transcendental. It’s a universal thing. You
don’t have to learn that language. Emotion is a language we can all pick up in a very intuitive way.
Aguilar: How difficult was it to find the right balance between these two characters’ grief and their relationship with each other?
: They are both very different people. Ben is carrying the guilt that was left behind by Kai. Each person has a particular way to grief. He decides to go
and visit the mother of his deceased partner. Then, things start to unravel and he gets caught up deeper and deeper in this relationship with her.
They are both different. You have a mother who is grieving the loss of her son and he is grieving his lover, but what connects them is their love for the
same man. Ultimately that is what heals the differences between them.
Aguilar: What was the spark or event that inspired you to write such an intimate film?
: It came from within me. I’m bilingual and I come from an immigrant family that came to Britain 30 years ago. Still, my mom hasn’t fully assimilated into
the culture. I wanted to re-imagine how someone would react if heir lifeline to the outside world was taken away. I wanted to see how that unfolds in the
Aguilar: You made a film that revolves around a character that is hardly seen in the film. The story unravels because of him but he is not the central
character on screen.
: That was something that I was very conscious of because we don’t see much of him. On top of that, there are only three scenes with him and Ben. I was very
concern if that was enough to show the nuances or the different layers of their relationship, so that when you don’t see him you almost feel like you miss
him. I was thinking abut how to keep Kai there when he is not actually there because I wanted grief to gently permeate the film. That was the story and it
presented the challenge of trying to keep him there while he is absent. I used the camera’s language to move between the present and the past in a way that
would blur the boundary between them.
: Ben was incredible. He is so truthful when you watch him, and we had Cheng Pei-Pei who is so expressive with her face. Ben conveys every word with such
urgency and truth. There is a scene in the film that sums up that for me. When the mother says, “I can smell Kai,” and Ben says “Me too” and he turns away
from the camera. It was so beautiful. It says a lot about Ben being so selfless in a situation like that. I didn’t expect him to turn away from the camera.
That made the scene far more painful and poignant. He is always seeking the truth about what’s happening. Even when he wasn’t on the shot he was very
generous trying to help the other actors find that truth in the scene.
Aguilar: Despite being a character driven intimate story, the visual aesthetic of the film is very specific. It has an almost ethereal or dreamy quality. Was it crucial for you to give the film a particular visual style?
: We always wanted to make it cinematic and we knew that the budget was a limitation. The film was always going to be performance-driven, and I wanted to
create a language to help reinforce those emotions. I wanted to give the camera a specific language. We wanted to make it look beautiful but everything we
decided was in tone to the story. Urszula, the cinematographer, and I, decided that whenever we are in the present we would pan clockwise and in the past
we pan counterclockwise. We watched a lot of films for references such as a short by Sean Durking who did “Martha, Macy, May Marlene,” the film is really
dreamy and we wanted to have that. There is also John Sayles “Lone Star.” For the flashbacks I didn’t just want to do a flashback that uses black-and-white
or sepia, and his film kept popping in my head. He does similar things. The camera pans and in a single pan he’s moved between the past and present. I
guess I wanted to use that to make it a bit more refreshing.
Aguilar: Junn gets a second chance by meeting a new man, did you ever considered giving Ben’s characters a second chance with another person?
: I did think of all these possibilities. This was certainly considered, but I think I quickly discovered that I didn’t want it to be this conventional
story with a conventional resolution in which everybody finds some peace and hope. I wanted to end it in a hopeful tone, but at the same time I didn’t want
everybody’s lives to be resolved. That way everything would be too neat and tied with a bow.
Aguilar: Where you concern that the subject of homosexuality
could be perceived as culturally specific given the characters in the film?
I don’t think it was culturally specific, though, of course, in Asian culture it is hard to come out. I think that to this day it’s still hard to come out in
certain parts of the world including certain parts of America or England. It’s hard even in Western developed countries. But what I wanted to say is that the difficulty of
coming out is not a cultural thing, it’s more about the fear of disappointing your parents. This shame that one carries is what was important for me to
Aguilar: After making your feature debut, where do you go from here as a filmmaker?
[Laughs] I don’t know. Hopefully I can continue making films. This was such a big learning experience. It was a bit stressful. It was baptism by fire.