Hong Khaou poignantly explores a multitude of themes – grief, loneliness, regret – through a deceptively simple premise about language barriers. The director’s debut, Lilting, introduces Junn (Cheng Pei Pei), a Chinese-Cambodian woman living alone a retirement home; sat in her room, she’s overwhelmed with heartbreak following the recent death of her only son, Kai (Andrew Leung). The pain is shared by Richard (Ben Whishaw) – Kai’s long-term boyfriend – who is keen for Junn to only know of him as the “best friend”.
The drama hinges on Richard’s pained attempts to connect with Junn without revealing the revelation – she doesn’t even know her son was gay. Crucially, she doesn’t speak any English, which necessitates Richard to hire an interpreter (Naomi Christie). The conversations are layered in repressed heartbreak from both sides: Richard hide his true relationship with Kai, while Junn bitterly blames Richard for never being able to live with her son. Sat in the middle is a stressed interpreter, trying her best to just be more of a messenger than referee.
With Junn and Richard taking turns to speak over a table, Lilting becomes a chess game of emotions. Much of the running time is spent watching and anticipating reaction shots for translated dialogue. Line by line, it’s apparent that one wrong move can upset the bond. Whishaw proves to be an adept physical actor whose fidgety gestures indicate to Junn that he’s hiding an underlying anguish (and would probably be terrible at poker). “Don’t tell her that,” he frequently asks his interpreter, after an outburst reveals too much of his true self. From the other side, Junn’s inscrutable exterior is an extension of her decades-long refusal to assimilate with British culture. When she conversely develops a fond fling with an elderly English resident, it’s evident her detachment with Richard is rooted by more than language.
While Lilting often resembles a chamber piece, it’s also the bare bones of a sweet story that requires modest settings – Junn’s retirement home is furnished after past decades to make residents feel younger. Perhaps tellingly, the film was constructed from a scheme that challenges filmmakers to use a budget under £120,000. Khaou understands how to pack an emotional weight through a small cast, especially with poetic flashbacks. Ultimately, the most compelling moments – the ones that will stick in memory – are the restrained physical gestures: eye contact when awaiting a translation, or hearing a foreign tongue change enunciation to produce harsher vowels. Some communications don’t require an interpreter.
‘Lilting’ plays East End Film Festival on 18 June at Hackney Picturehouse. For more information, click here.