VOD film review: Lilting
Chris Blohm | On 07, Aug 2014
Director: Hong Khaou
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Pei-pei Cheng, Andrew Leung, Leila Wong
Watch Lilting online in the UK: MUBI UK / BFI Player / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Few films this year will match the sense of romantic melancholy and general cosmic yearning of Lilting, the wonderful debut feature from director Hong Khaou.
It is a magnificent sigh of a movie, one that succinctly captures the kind of slow-release heartbreak that gently but firmly crushes you from the inside out. This isn’t just a love story, more of a gravitational collapse. At its centre, an emerging giant in the form of Ben Whishaw, who gives his strongest and most subtle performance to date.
The last couple of years have been kind to Whishaw. He stole the show in the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas. And his casting as an adorkable Q in the classy Bond effort Skyfall sent fans into a tizzy the whole world over. Yet this adept performer hasn’t quite made the leap to full leading man status. His earlier turns in pictures like Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and Bright Star were possibly a little idiosyncratic for mainstream tastes. Perhaps he’s just too cool for school, with his crystal clear, staccato enunciation and strangely waifish, effortlessly bohemian appearance.
Lilting finds Whishaw maturing at a nimble rate, however. He’s close to perfect here as Richard, a young man struggling to come to terms with the death of his boyfriend, Kai (Andrew Leung). Richard hopes to keep the memory of his lover alive by connecting with Kai’s Chinese-speaking mother, Junn, who lives a mundane existence in a nearby nursing home.
In Junn’s eyes, Richard is little more than an interloper, and she remains weirdly oblivious to the exact nature of her son’s relationship with this mysterious stranger. What’s more, Junn’s trying to manage her own grief too, finding solace in an impossible new romance.
Junn is rendered with miraculous dignity by Pei-pei Cheng, a veteran of Asian cinema (most prominently as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). In many ways, she is the real star of the film. This is a moving and graceful performance, and the rest of the cast orbit elliptically around her, like sad moons.
The film talks eloquently about the selfishness of grief. Richard and Junn get bogged down in the bureaucracy of tidying up Kai’s belongings, but despite their disagreements, they’re both just looking to experience one final embrace or illicit private joke with their beloved. Despite the language barrier (neither can understand each other) there’s a shared longing that overwhelms both Richard and Junn, though one of them ultimately proves more proficient at adapting to their new circumstances than the other.
Lilting is a quietly confident film, bursting with lovely touches. Check out the way Khaou freezes the frame in order to crystallise specific reminiscences. And how his camera transforms carefully decorated rooms into emotional caverns, steeped in history, punctuated by the reverb of memory. Particularly striking is the juxtaposition of Richard’s fashionable warehouse apartment versus Junn’s cosy retirement accommodation. They couldn’t be more different, yet the spirit of Kai lingers in both. Two worlds, one man.
Lilting is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.