By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
The camera work in “Lilting” moves slowly and unobtrusively. Usually, it keeps two characters in focus but retains a third on one edge of the frame. This reminds us that the film has five main characters, and one cannot talk to the other three without one of the others. It reminds us that these characters will remain intertwined, sometimes against their own will. The young lovers, Richard (Ben Whishaw) and Kai (Andrew Leung), lie together on a bed in a simple apartment, laughing together, sniffing each other, and sometimes arguing in each other’s arms. They think they know what awaits them, what moves to make in their complicated but controlled life. Their warmth will carry them.
We already know one of their major challenges, though, because we’ve already seen Junn (Pei-Pei Cheng) meet with her son, Kai, in the assisted-care facility he’s moved her into. They’re both Chinese Cambodian, although they moved to England when Kai was quite small. Junn’s husband has since died. Kai can’t bear to come out as gay to his only remaining parent, and their rows, about the facility and Junn’s loneliness, carry a depth for him that she can probe, but not know.
The film also circles around its own narrative and sometimes takes us back in time. This is necessary to show how an exchange can be reshaped with knowledge that the audience, and sometimes the characters, didn’t have before. Hong Khaou, in his feature-length film debut, risks tedium with such moves, but he displays his reasons quietly and gracefully. He displays elegant control of his own screenplay.
Soon enough (in linear time) Kai dies in an accident, never coming out to his mother. This leaves Richard determined to care for Junn, on Richard’s own terms. He isn’t wrong to reach out to Junn, but the old lady still doesn’t know that her only child was anything more than a “best friend” to this strange white man who doesn’t speak any of her languages (she knows at least five or six, but only a few words of English).
Richard must find a way to communicate with Junn, and he notices that Junn needs a way to communicate with Alan (Peter Bowles), an older fellow she starts dating at the facility. Richard recruits a translator, Vann (Naomi Christie, in her film debut) to translate Junn’s Mandarin.
Vann is brought in to solve problems she didn’t create, sometimes flounders, but she always takes the viewer along with her. We can always imagine her making the same moves, whether it’s decided not to translate something sensitive, balking at being pushed by Richard to translate it even if it is, or confessing to Richard that Junn now thinks that Richard and Vann are lovers, since they spend all their time together.
Everyone seems refreshingly like a real person in “Lilting,” so it’s free to toy with and crack into your feelings. Nobody wants sadness, but fear and grief and language barriers sometimes carry it along.
We want everyone in the film to succeed, to have happiness in that way, but this is the price for having human weakness, human desire, and human vulnerability. We sometimes hurt in the name of compassion. (end)
“Lilting” plays at Seattle’s Varsity Theatre, located at 4329 University Way N.E. in Seattle’s University District.
For prices and showtimes, call 206-781-5755 or check local listings.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.