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Filmmaker’s Forum: Hong Khaou On The Emotional Journey of Bringing ‘Lilting’ To Sundance

Filmmaker's Forum: Hong Khaou On The Emotional Journey of Bringing 'Lilting' To Sundance

This is the first in a series of first person posts in which we provide a forum for filmmakers and other artists to discuss their process, their influences and/or their experiences showing their work. We’re proud to have Hong Khaou offer the inaugural edition as he discusses bringing his feature film debut “Lilting” both to fruition and to the Sundance Film Festival (where it was one of our favorite films).

The lead up to our opening night for World Dramatic Competition has been nothing less than agonizing. It will be the first time we’re showing “Lilting” to the public, and god it’s so scary. How will the public react? How will the American public react? How will the press receive it? Will the film play through ok? Will people understand what I’m trying to say?….

The idea for “Lilting” started with my family. We were political refugees from Cambodia, arriving in England in the 1980s. My mother wanted to give her children the opportunities for a future. Being young, we were able to fully assimilate into a new life, culture and language. Regrettably, she wasn’t able to integrate so easily and to this day, after 30 odd years is still unable to master the English language.  I took this premise as an idea and ran with it. I imagined and re-imagined what it would be like if her lifeline to the outside world was gone – how would she cope? 

So language became an integral motif in “Lilting.” I wanted to use it as an analogy to comment on communication, particularly the flip side of that. We all know communication brings about understanding and bridge cultural differences. What you also get is that it is equally destructive, with conflicts arising out of it.

I’ve always wanted to use ‘the translator’ as a prominent narrative device. The concern was whether this technique would bear up throughout the film because of the repetition. But what you get with this technique is at certain screenings where you have a mixed audience, with some people who are able to understand Mandarin. It creates this lovely dynamic in which a section of the audience react and responding earlier than others. I absolutely love it when this happens. I feel in some ways it places them in the shoes of the characters.

A big influence for me was John Sayles’ film, “Lone Star.” I love his work; incredible filmmaker. I like the way he blurred the timelines in that specific film. I wanted to follow on from that, but have the actors change their clothes behind the camera and reappear again in a different timeline in one continuous shot. I remember the tone in “Lone Star” was just impeccable and I desperately wanted to emulate that in “Lilting.”

Three years ago, my short film was showing at Sundance, and I maxed out on all my credit cards in order to go. It turned out to be the most expensive festival I’ve been to and equally the most inspiring film festival too. It really affected me, I remembered telling myself that I must make a film before turning 40. I’m now 38 years old, the journey getting here has been punishing and tremendous in every sense. I don’t think I slept during filming.  It feels wonderfully fitting to have the world premier at Sundance – 3 years exactly to the day when I was there, which galvanised me to write “Lilting.”

Public speaking makes me clam up and I get sweat patches in odd places. I find Q&A uncomfortably difficult and odd. I find it hard to think on my feet. I wish I could sit down with those that have asked the questions and have an informal chat, I would be able to answer them better rather than in front of a crowd of over 500 strangers. I would also aske them questions back. Did they understood what I was trying to do? Did they get it that the dialogue was out of sync? Did they understand the repetition? Did they understand that beneath all the grief and pain of the characters, I was also trying to comment on my experience as an immigrant? And that there is no easy answer to that. They seem to have received the film well. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s ok if people don’t entirely understand it, I think they will emotional feel it, I hope. At the opening night, the audience laughed at the right places, and at places I didn’t expected. They asked some probing questions that I wished I could have answered better. I almost forgot to introduce our lead actress Pei Pei. All in all it was an incredible experience, to have felt the crowd’s emotions – I feel very proud and moved inside. The Sundance Film Festival is a very special place, truly. I hope to returned there again one day.

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