NewFest Movie Review: Hong Khaou's 'Lilting' Is A Stunning, Intimate Portrait Of Loss And Cultural Divides

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BY JOSEPH EHRMAN-DUPRE

You’d be hard pressed to believe that Lilting, a measured and quietly emotional film which screened this week at NYC's NewFest, is the work of a first time director. But Hong Khaou has crafted an intimate portrait of loss which questions tightly bound notions of familial and cultural divides. 

The story follows Junn (Pei-pei Cheng), an elderly woman whose only son, Kai (Andrew Leung), has placed her in a posh assisted living home. There is tension around this decision, located primarily in the jealousy Junn feels for Kai’s friend Richard (Ben Whishaw), who she believes has taken her place in Kai’s home. Little does she know that Richard is actually Kai’s live-in boyfriend and, if only they could be honest with each other, everyone may be able to live in peace. That aspiration is dashed when Kai meets an untimely death at the beginning of the film. Richard, burdened with immeasurable loneliness, reaches out to Junn for the first time, using a translator named Vann (Naomi Christie) to speak with her and forge unsteady ties.

Lilting2The film is conspicuous in its preoccupation with speech. The narrative plays out as a series of inventively written conversations bracketed by chillingly beautiful shots of the colder months passing by outside (the movie won the World Cinematography award at Sundance). Flashbacks and memories serve as consistent reminders of the influence Kai had on both characters, and the depth of the loss they have suffered. Khaou is clever here, too, repeating scenes multiple times as they garner new layers, or editing together the past and present. In a particularly emotional scene, Richard lies in bed with Kai, touching him, only to begin crying when he realizes the impossibility of such contact in the present; the doorbell rings and Richard, still teary-eyed, rushes downstairs to find Junn and Vann at he and Kai’s home, a kind of intimate intrusion. 

Through their conversations, Richard and Junn come to recognize pieces of Kai that they had not known. They mutually reinforce the best and worst memories, etching an indelible, shared portrait of the man they both loved. The tension is palpable, particularly around Kai and Richard’s romantic relationship and the limits of what Kai would have wanted his mother to know. Where so many other movies rely on subtitles, Lilting strands us alongside Richard and Junn in this uncomfortable space of unknowing, relying on Vann’s translations and creating tension as the conversations become more heated. The actors inhabit their roles beautifully, with Whishaw giving a prickly, tearful performance and Pei-Pei one of restraint and palpable depression. Their personalities, as much as their languages and ages, clash and lend the film an even more realistic feel. 

Ultimately, divides are breached, language is tested, and neither character comes out miraculously healed. There is incurable sadness in Kai’s disappearance from their lives. But, Lilting leaves us with the notion that memories live on in the shuffle toward renewed normalcy, and the best we can do is seek to understand the varied, beautiful facets of those we have lost. 

Check out the trailer for the film, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Comments

  1. Where does one find these movies to watch? Since the local Blockbusters closed I never watch movies at home. I tried Netflix but new releases aren't available and I don't like waiting to receive them in the mail, it's my adhd. I miss perusing the movies in person. I don't have the patience to wait via mail and little is available through streaming.

    So, what does a person do now to rent movies?

    Posted by: Jason B. | Jul 31, 2014 7:10:07 PM


  2. Between this movie and Love Is Strange, I'm so excited about this year's crop of gay films.

    Posted by: Profe Sancho Panza | Jul 31, 2014 7:32:26 PM


  3. Jason.

    Just google w/e movie you want to watch online and pretty much anything is available. Personally I like viooz.co - but there are many, many websites where you can stream movies for free.

    Posted by: Happyandlucky | Jul 31, 2014 8:20:19 PM


  4. Ben Whishaw is so sexy. Love that guy's body - the acting is great too!

    Posted by: Sergio | Aug 1, 2014 12:11:34 AM


  5. I'm much less enamored of this movie. It is earnestly sensitive in its treatment of every character but that doesn't mean it has plot, conflict, emotional depth, excitement, or interest.

    It's a film with a lot of good intentions toward its characters and their grief. The point of the movie is narrated, told to us, not shown, and it's surprising because we're told that what the characters experience has to do with growing old when 99% of the movie is about grieving for a dead son/dead lover. Huh?

    Posted by: Topol | Aug 1, 2014 12:13:32 AM


  6. Topol: Actually seen it?

    Posted by: emjayay | Aug 1, 2014 1:12:58 AM


  7. @Jason B - This particular film has been acquired for exclusive distribution in the U.S. by Strand Releasing. According to a press release, they plan a late summer 2014 release. One source, indicates it will open in New York, September 26, 2014, and then in Los Angeles, October 3, 2014. Other types of release (such as wider cinema or streaming/rental) would probably follow after that.

    Posted by: Rexford | Aug 1, 2014 3:58:57 AM


  8. Happyandlucky: Yes, the best way to support gay cinema is of course to steal it! What is wrong with you? If everyone does what you do there will be no gay cinema because, guess what? If no one pays to see the films they don't make any money to make more movies! Stop being selfish and actually pay to support these films and these directors.

    Posted by: Liam | Aug 1, 2014 9:28:13 AM


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