Lilting Dir. Hong Khaou

[Strand Releasing; 2014]

Styles: antiseptic drama
Others: In the Bedroom, Ordinary People, the opposite of Antichrist

Lilt (verb): to sing or play in a light, tripping, or rhythmic manner

It is the rare film whose title describes its style and tone rather than referring to something within its narrative, but Hong Khaou’s Lilting is so deliberate in its pacing and structure that it is a surprisingly apt signifier of what to expect on-screen. In fact, this stylistic lilting is so pervasive it’s distractingly hypnotic, only not in that Tarkovsky/Malick/Lynchian way that is entirely freeing and invigorating, but rather in a completely contradictory oppressively milquetoast fashion reminiscent of hushed lullabies or Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby series. And that would all be perfectly awesome were the film not distinctly about coming to terms with the tragic death of a loved one.

The aforementioned death is that of Kai (Andrew Leung), a Cambodian-Chinese gay man who was involved with Richard (Ben Whishaw) for several years, unbeknownst to his mother, Junn (Pei-pei Cheng , AKA the badass forever immortalized in King Hu’s Come Drink With Me and later, reintroduced to the English-speaking world in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who recently moved to the U.S. and who is still in the midst of a culture clash when her son is killed by a careless driver. The majority of film concerns Richard’s attempts to bridge the cultural and generational gap in order to come to terms with the death of his soul mate and ease the tension that existed between the two while Kai was alive.

Both Pei-pei Cheng and Whishaw deliver achingly tender performances, delicately capturing the vulnerable states of their characters. While this extreme earnestness comes off as more than a bit too mannered and clean, lacking any trace of the gritty, emotionally unstable mess that should have penetrated this vacuum-sealed cinematic universe or apartment since that’s where most of the film takes place, Hong Khaou is able to create both a complex dynamic between the two leads and quite effectively portray the difficulties of cross-cultural communication and the complexities of the new immigrant experience. Lilting is actually at its best when dealing with the inability of Richard and Junn to connect, be it due to the language barrier (Richard hires a translator, who causes nearly as much harm as good) or cultural barrier (Junn is old school, hence quite oblivious that Richard was her son’s lover) rather than when it focuses more specifically on their grieving processes.

Also frustrating is the mostly unnecessary relationship between Junn and an older gentleman, Alan, who lives in the nursing home with her. Not only does this distract from the film’s central conceit, it does little to develop Junn’s character and, at best, serves as a superfluous mirror to Richard’s early failures to connect with Junn as Alan is able to do so with grace and wit. It provides a bit of comic relief, which was needed in a film as relentlessly sincere and straight-laced as this one, but ultimately serves as more of distraction than anything else. But despite these glaring flaws and its predictable third act, Lilting has a number of beautiful, real moments between Junn and Richard that reflect a true understanding of the mysterious ways grief can change us and the shared love of a person can lead us to see the good is those most unrelatable to us. If that sounds corny, and it does, it’s perfectly in line with Khaou’s film - one that wears its heart on its sleeve, but without bleeding too much, and is overly square and precise, but also a welcome reprieve from the irony-prone fair that most often fills our cinemas. Sometimes sincerity, with all its cheesy directness, is all that’s needed to strike the right chord.

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