Lilting is a slow, quiet little piece, a film of delicacy—even fragility—that, like its whispery title, risks being carried away on a breeze. But thanks to first-time writer-director Hong Khaou’s patient approach and some beautifully observed performances from all involved, Lilting is ultimately a deeply humane film. It is not a film of great surprises or deep revelations—we can guess where it will end up almost as soon as it starts—but it is a sincere attempt to connect individuals on a human level, across the boundaries of culture.
The death of a young man draws together Richard (Ben Whishaw), a young white Londoner, and Junn (Cheng Pei Pei), an elderly Cambodian Chinese woman living in a nursing home. Though leagues apart in age, culture, and language—Junn, despite having lived in the UK for decades, does not speak English—they are linked, reluctantly, by their love for Kai (Andrew Leung), Richard’s boyfriend and Junn’s son. Kai dies before coming out to his mother, forcing Richard to keep their relationship a secret. Richard visits Junn and, finding that she has struck up a relationship with another of the nursing home residents, Alan (Peter Bowles), decides to hire a translator, Vann (Naomi Christie), to help Junn and Alan communicate. Though icy at first, Junn slowly develops a relationship with Richard, one that starts to become more important to her than the relationship with Alan.
Lilting often feels like a play, not in the usual sense of staginess or theatricality, but because Khaou prefers to observe a small set of people in relation to each other and to explore their relationships primarily through dialogue in intimate settings. Almost every scene consists of some combination of the same five characters. We never see Richard go to work—I’m pretty sure we never even find out what he does for a living—or Junn eat a meal alone. This very limited scope risks closing the characters off, defining them too narrowly. And Khaou’s approach sometimes compounds the issue; his gentleness can seem like bloodlessness, a sanding-down of the rough edges of life.
But to some extent, the narrowness is appropriate because this is a story about the grief that underlies every moment of Richard’s and Junn’s lives. If they are not brimming with the fullness of life, that is understandable—a huge part of their lives has just been wrenched away from them. But, even more, Whishaw and Cheng give such rounded performances that their characters never seem less than fully human. Whishaw’s puppy-dog eyes give him a sad, perpetually grieving quality that belies his deeper strength and nobility. Cheng’s kind face expresses her goodness even when she’s at her most tendentious.
Khaou plays everything methodically. The slowness is emphasized by the translation. Each statement Kai makes to Junn and Junn makes to Kai is mediated through Vann’s translation. We watch someone speak, and only a few moments later do we see the reaction, after Vann has translated. This simple fact of translation, which decelerates the conversations in the film considerably, is actually one of the film’s great cinematic strengths. Through subtle but profound editing, Khaou focuses us on the face of the speaker, to read their emotions, and then, separately, to witness the emotional effect in the listener. Normal shot-reverse shot editing—the basis of cinematic conversation—is tweaked in a way that gives us the full emotional effect of both speaker and listener. Early on, Richard and Junn are awkward, looking at Vann when they speak more than at each other. By the end of the film, they will have formed a bond so close that their climactic speeches are delivered to each other directly, without the interregnum of Vann’s translation.