Lilting (2014)

12:50 PM

Last Sunday I attended the ReelOut Queer Film Festival in Kingston, Ontario, and had the privilege of seeing Lilting, a phenomenal film dealing with heartbreak and love transcending language. The film explores the relationship between an aging non-English speaking Cambodian-Chinese woman, and the secret boyfriend of her recently deceased son. This strange, and oft-times frustrating relationship acts as the epicentre of Lilting's story, around which revealing, and complementary ancient narratives orbit. 

In modern-day London, Junn (Pei-Pei Cheng) is living in a senior's care facility having been put there by her son Kai (Andrew Leung) when he finds it increasingly difficult to balance his mother, and a personal life with his longtime partner, Richard (Ben Whishaw). Kai never revealed to his mother his sexual orientation before he died, perhaps out of a filial guilt complex, and so the grief felt by his partner Richard is publicly played down as Richard tries to connect with Junn, a woman whom he doesn't fully comprehend, but nonetheless feels an obligation towards (for Kai's sake). As Richard enters into Junn's story, Junn is "seeing" Alan (Peter Bowles), an English man at the senior's home, who brings her flowers everyday and tells her she's beautiful, a sentiment which Junn understands without understanding the literal words. Lilting starts to really unfold with Vann (Naomi Christie), a translator hired by Richard to interpret conversations first between himself and Junn, and then as an olive branch gesture, conversations between Alan and Junn.  There's love that blossoms here in the wake of such incredible heartbreak and tragedy — it's a beautiful parallel between the two couples. Alan and Junn connecting with touches and gestures before language ever had a part to play, and with Richard and Kai, the layers peeling back on a relationship kept secret from Junn, a relationship that is still not universally normalized. Both relationships could be considered unorthodox, but both are unquestionably composed of love.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Lilting is the "lilt" itself, the subtle variations in speech, undetectable to non-native speakers. It’s easy to attach yourself to a voice, get lost in the rhythm, the cadence, the incantation of it all — almost hypnotic in that sense. But a dissonance between languages feels disembodying, disconnected. Language is used in a powerful way in Lilting, being that there isn’t much direct communication between characters; words are either being translated by a third person, or accepted as unintelligible by both parties. Subtitles reveal to the viewer alone the entirety of the unfolding narrative. I’ve heard some say they find subtitles distracting and I agree that they can be, but in the context of this film I find that subtitles have the opposite effect. Reading the words demands involvement, both mentally and emotionally and in the case of Junn, allows the viewer to feel her story to a degree more profound than if it were absorbed with immediate spoken understanding. And you especially feel it in the lulls between translations, the piece of tension between the words escaping the mouth, and then finally being received. These are beautifully crafted moments, like little reflective breathing spaces. 

I can’t remember the last time a movie made me cry, and so viscerally at that. Lilting is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful. It's a gorgeous slow burn film that manages to seamlessly master the subtleties of non-verbal tenderness. 

Lilting (2014)

dir. Hong Khaou
Starring Pei-Pei Cheng, Ben Whishaw, Andrew Leung, Peter Bowles, Naomi Christie
91 mins | UK

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