Writer-director Hong Kaou’s feature debut, Lilting, is a quiet and delicate chamber piece about two unlikely acquaintances overcoming barriers while grieving the untimely death of their loved one. Despite the film’s lack of character development, its cross-cultural narrative can reach out to a refined niche.
The film opens to Kai (Andrew Leung) visiting his Cambodian-Chinese mother, Junn (Cheng Pei-pei), at her London retirement home. Complaining about being locked up, Junn is concerned that she is excluded from her own son’s life, and she is right. Kai is keeping his mother in the dark about his homosexuality and the real identity of his “best friend”, Richard (Ben Whishaw).
The conversation is deeply affectionate and almost dream-like, and it is later revealed that the opening scene is Junn reliving her last moments with Kai. As a nice little touch, the interaction is subtly different every time it is replayed.
Feeling responsible to take on Kai’s role, Richard tries to reach out to Junn by hiring Vann (Naomi Christie) to translate for Junn and Alan(Peter Bowles), a fellow British resident who has budded a flirtation with Junn. This yields a minor comic relief during the film’s deliberately slow pace, maintaining the mood from getting too sulky.
Kaou tries to convey a compelling message about the emotional connection, even without a common language. Contrarily, Junn is isolated from the other English-speaking characters as well as the (presumably English-speaking) audience. Kaou leaves out the subtitles when Vann is translating, and Junn’s innermost vulnerability is only conveyed through monologues, which are never translated to the other characters. Junn is also devoid of the choice to withhold the translation of some of her dialogues, which the other characters often do, marginalizing her even further.
Kaou’s depiction of homosexuality is also worth giving some attention. In most scenes where Kai and Richard are together, they are either naked and in bed or are intimately touching each other. It is possible to omit the hypersexualization without affecting the plot, but Kaou chooses not to. The film also pursues the androcentristic illustration of white gay men, who are mostly better represented in popular culture than, for example, black lesbians.
Racial subtexts in sexualization are also prevalent throughout the film. Junn’s racial preference, pointed out by Kai, and Kai’s choice of white British man as his partner suggest a racial hierarchy, where Asians supposedly advance in status by acquiring a white spouse.
Kai: Is he(Alan) English? (Junn nodds) You like pale skin. Dad was half white.
Vice versa, Junn mentions Alan’s behaviour that possibly stems from orientalism, which hypersexualizes Asian women.
Junn: I can talk rubbish and he still thinks I’m an exotic beauty.
Whishaw plays febrile, soft, and teary Richard exquisitely, however, the writer-director does not extend the role any further. Given Whishaw’s previous works, such as Skyfall and Cloud Atlas, it is unfortunate that his broad acting spectrum is not used to its full potential. Similarly, best known for her martial-arts in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Cheng plays equally one-dimensional Junn, who is predominantly rigid and grumpy until just before the end of the film.
Although peripheral to the plot, the short take of the senior home effectively conveys the alienation most marginalized people feel. The shot begins with a zoom-in on white elders peacefully engaged in their activities. Then the camera focuses on Junn, who is hunched over at her tea alone, with a frown on her face.
Reflecting on the scene, a comment made by Richard comes to light.
Richard: I’ll doubt that they have mid-century furniture from Cambodia.
What is meant to make the residents feel “at home” not only does not apply to Junn, but also makes her feel even more distant from the community.
The juxtaposition of Junn against the other white elders reminds me, as an immigrant, of the memories of being overly conscious about my differences. The emotion of total disconnection from the world can only truly be comprehended through experience. As a result, marginalized people, by race, gender, or any other way, can viscerally resonate with the desolation Junn bears throughout the film, Lilting.
Aside from the film itself, the upbeat atmosphere of the Reelout Queer Film Festival has also contributed to the positive cinematic experience. Despite the vicious weather, a high number of people came out with excitement and enthusiasm. The modest scale of the theatre created an air of intimacy with the festival director as well as a sense of connection with the fellow audience members.
Prior to the feature film, a quick interactive raffle prize and a short film took place, which helped to liven up the mood. The short film has also broadened my perspective on the different genres of motion picture.
As my first participation in a film festival, Reelout Queer Film Festival was a delightful experience that opened new doors to diverse culture and community.