Reelout Film Review: “Lilting”

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.

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5 thoughts on “Reelout Film Review: “Lilting”

  1. This is a great review! I like that you touched upon an array of different topics/issues that arose in the film. The most interesting thing that I gathered from your review was the depiction of race in the film. Very interesting that the filmmaker chose to portray the relationships in the film that way. Showing how orientalism comes into play in many relationships. And also how her Junn’s differences can be celebrated as well as be shunned or seen as negative. I like that you were able to connect with this film on a personal level, and were willing to share your experience. In what ways do you feel this film could have been improved in terms of representation of race?

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  2. You wrote a great film review on “Lilting”! You managed to cover a variety of different topics within this film. One that i thought that stood out was the hyper-sexualization of white gay men. In majority of media I feel like this is the stereotypical portrayal of gay white men,do you think if this was a straight couple, or a lesbian couple they be portrayed with the same hyper-sexualization? Or would they by less sexualized? It was also interesting how race was portrayed in the movie, why do you think Junn was marginalized? the reference you made to the film and your own experiences, was a great way to show how the issues dealt with in the film can be connected at such a personal level. After seeing this film do you feel that it presented important issues and topics? and how do you think this representation of race in film and media can be fixed to not cause certain minorities to be marginalized?

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  3. I enjoyed your review of Lilting. I liked how you addressed orientalism as an issue in the film, but I would have liked to know more about what the film had to say about Kai’s sexuality; possibly how it intersects with his family’s race and culture. I thought it would have been interesting to hear about Junn’s initial reaction to discovering that her son was homosexual. Was the news met with acceptance or was she rejecting of Kai’s partner when he first sought her out? As a final thought, you mentioned that the film reached out to a refined niche. Do you think it is more effective as is, or would it be more powerful if it were made to target a larger audience?

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  4. I must say this review read very well! I like how you’ve pulled in quote from the film to provide evidence for your analysis, and also breaking up your text into smaller chunks made it much easier to read and very “blogesque” in my book. You’ve really tried to combat many aspects of intersectionality like the hyper-sexualization of gay men and asian women, and orientalism, which are for sure reoccurring themes throughout the film. I just wish you had been a little more critical about the film from your point of view. How did the film make you feel? Could you relate to it? What were you expecting to get out of it? Were you disappointed? And How you you feel about these East-Asian actors being portrayed as one dimensional?

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  5. Thank you so much for your comments! I’m glad you guys enjoyed my review.The movie itself covers a wide spectrum of topics including gender and race, so I tried to reflect as much as possible in my review but obviously couldn’t include everything.
    Concerning about Kai’s sexuality and Junn’a relationship with Richard, the film makes it pretty clear from the very beginning that Junn doesn’t approve of Richard, even though she only knows him as Kai’s “best friend”. The writer-director doesn’t focus on the whole coming out story too much, although it is the background of the conflict. Junn only finds out about her son’s secret at the very end of the film, and the film does not show her reaction, but rather moves on to Junn’s monologue about her life. In my opinion, Junn may have had an idea about Kai and Richard’s relationship but was in denial. Perhaps that’s the reason for her hostility towards her son’s friend.
    Moving on to the racial subtexts in the film, I would have liked to see some more diversity in the cast, but the clear racial division may have helped in illustrating the isolation Junn feels. I’m not sure how the film would help in solving the issue of the isolation of immigrants, but it definitely serves as a good story for them to connect to and empathize.
    I think if the film focused on the comedy between Junn and Allan, it could have targeted a larger audience. However, the film also deals with the different ways people handle grief, so I wouldn’t personally prefer it to be taken too lightly. Hopefully this was helpful in answering your questions. 🙂

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