Editor’s Notes: Lilting is out in limited release this Friday, September 26th.
Writer/director Hong Khaou’s debut film Lilting examines the painful aftermath of a Chinese Cambodian boy’s death. Kai came to London from China because his mother wanted to give him a better, freer life. Kai is a soft, kind boy who’s lightly charming, fairly fashionable, and somewhat beautiful looking. He’s fairly ordinary, but uncomfortably modern. From the beginning, it’s immediately clear that Kai and his mother’s relationship has a typical balance of familiarity in most conversations and unease with more personal matters especially romance. The mother, who would otherwise prefer to be in China, spends the film in deep pain from his death. She has a strained relationship with Richard (Ben Whishaw), Kai’s boyfriend. Given her conservative nature, Kai never admitted that Richard was his deeply committed boyfriend, but the truth remained apparent. Khaou observes the mother and Richard, sometimes in their silent mourning, sometimes together struggling to communicate literally and emotionally, and sometimes in their individual memories of Kai.
As one may expect at this point, Lilting is filled with the loneliness of vacant hearts.
The film opens on shots of the objects occupying an empty home, filled with “mid-century [Cambodian] furniture.” We soon discover this is the home of the mother, Junn. She speaks with Kai, and the conflict of his homosexuality is clear but their mutual affection trumps the slight tension. Her love for him is clear and deep. They’re very familiar, even talking about her romantic life on this occasion. As the viewer begins to be seduced by the charms of this relationship, someone knocks at the door. It’s a neighbor visiting to change a light bulb. As the neighbor walks by and speaks only to Junn, we begin to realize Kai isn’t actually there. The warmth of the cinematography is glaringly gone. Khaou cuts to a shot of Junn once the neighbor is gone and it’s painful to see. She sits on the bed, next to the spot where we thought Kai was laying and smiling. Behind the bed is a long narrow space leading to an empty chair, monotonous walls, and an insignificant cross in the distance. Over that lonely, narrow space, the title appears like faded white chalk. As one may expect at this point, Lilting is filled with the loneliness of vacant hearts.
Khaou’s debut is quite impressive but its debut status is something that looms overhead in unsuccessful moments. When at its best, the film reminds me of Asghar Farhadi’s The Past in its gentle observations of people in pain with remarkable empathy.
The film then cuts to images of nature, including one of a tree’s dying leaves. This moment epitomizes Khaou’s eye for the world, this world. He looks lovingly at wilting objects, like the old tree or heartbroken souls. The whole film has a damp affection for life, whether the camera watches objects of a house, the people, or the trees. Khaou’s greatest strength as a director is as a quiet observer. The film loses its luster when it shifts away from the mundane towards “important” conversations and conflicts. These moments reveal Khaou’s weakest quality of not working well with actors. Performances are of some merit, but not to the standard of the direction. This even includes the often fantastic Ben Whishaw. The other main flaw of the film is occasional conversations with Kai. The opening sequence with Junn created such a fully realized portrait of him and their relationship, that subsequent wanderings belittle the authenticity established. Khaou doesn’t need that more obvious confrontation to explore these characters because he’s so successful implying those moments with quiet observations of his characters.
Khaou’s debut is quite impressive but its debut status is something that looms overhead in unsuccessful moments. When at its best, the film reminds me of Asghar Farhadi’s The Past in its gentle observations of people in pain with remarkable empathy. It’s unsurprising due to this use of camera, and the sheer beauty of the cinematography, that Urszula Pontikos won Best Cinematography for this film at the Sundance Film Festival. While flawed, Lilting is surely a film that deserves to be seen in theaters.
While flawed, Lilting is surely a film that deserves to be seen in theaters.