We have all lost someone dear to us, but we all deal with it in our own way. Lilting, the first film from writer/director Hong Khaou, explores how two very different people deal with the loss of the same person.
The dearly departed is Kai (Andrew Leung) the boyfriend of Richard (Ben Whishaw) and the son of Junn (Pei-pei Cheng), a Cambodian émigré now living in London. Hit and killed by a bus prior to the beginning of the movie, Kia visits both Richard and Junn via memories that Khaou weaves into present. Kai’s passing is so recent that Richard and Junn still feel like he is there with them.
Richard and Kai had been living together for a while, but Kai had not come out to his mother, making his passing more difficult for Richard. He tries to tiptoe around certain information, pretending to be a close friend and roommate of Kai’s. Junn most likely suspects more, but she doesn’t say. In fact, Junn doesn’t speak a lick of English, prompting Richard to hire Vann (Naomi Christie) as a translator for the two.
Junn wants Kai’s things. Richard does not want to part with them, but doesn’t want to exposes Kai’s secrets and lacks any significant argument. It doesn’t help matters that Junn never cared much for Richard and that Richard resented the guilt Junn placed on Kai. That covers the totality of the conflict found in Lilting, and it’s not much. There are two side stories, one involving Junn and an English suitor, Alan (Peter Bowles) who has a thing for Junn, but can’t communicate with her — Vann assists in that department — and a possible platonic relationship between Richard and Vann. Neither distracts from the overall relationship between Richard and Junn, but they don’t add much either.
The loss and frustration Richard feels is palpable and Wishaw is just the sort of actor to convey that emotion. He gives a good performance is a movie that lacks prestige, notoriety or positive word of mouth. The most interesting aspect of Lilting are the scenes where Vann translates between Richard and Junn, allowing Wishaw to give two performances for every line of information. First, by blurting out his true feelings — telling Vann not to translate — and then by giving a composed and sanitized response.
Lilting is a beautiful and lyrical film about the giant hole left behind because of loss. It’s also quite dull. Lilting not only lacks a conflict, it also lacks any significant insights. Characters will at first resist giving or doing something, only then to give in and apologize for resisting. Lilting is a very polite conversation, and like most polite conversations, adds little to anything.