★★★ / ★★★★
Many LGBTQ movies tend to rest of trivialities, often relying on the physical attractiveness of its leads to take the audience from beginning to end. “Lilting,” written and directed by Hong Khaou, is an elegant and sophisticated film about loss and mourning. It is about many things: memories, communication, love. With these qualities being front and center, the picture is able to transcend the sub-genre. Most importantly, it has a story worth telling and it urges the audience to think about its messages afterwards.
Kai (Andrew Leung) has been in a relationship with Richard (Ben Whishaw) for four years and the two have moved in together. The situation gets complicated, however, every time Kai’s mother, Junn (Pei-pei Cheng), comes for a visit: She does not know that her son is gay. After Kai’s untimely death, Richard feels the need to tell his former lover’s mother the truth about Kai and the love they shared.
I admired the way the language barrier is treated with respect instead of humor. In lesser hands, Junn could have been written as a strict Cambodian-Chinese mother without much depth and dimension in addition to this surface characteristic. Instead of treating her like a joke because she can neither speak nor understand English, there is genuine interest in figuring out what she might be thinking or feeling when the translator hired by Richard, Vann (Naomi Christie), is not around or remaining quiet because the occasion calls for it. Notice how the camera simply but confidently rests on Junn’s face. We could feel a history and experience behind those eyes.
The flashbacks between the Richard and Kai are highly efficient. Notice that each memory tells us something about the dynamics of their relationship. In one scene, we observe how much they adore one another. In another scene, they disagree to an extent that they eventually get under each other’s skins. Because we encounter variety, we get a good picture of what Richard lost. We feel his loss. We wonder how he will be able to move on. He certainly deserves to.
Less interesting is a possible romantic connection between Junn and a fellow resident in the care home named Alan (Peter Bowles). Much of the humor is derived from their interactions, but I found the charade to be a little forced. This relationship does not come to fruition and I wondered if the film might have been stronger if the time spent with Alan were eliminated and allowed more chances for Junn and Richard to try and connect.
The key word is “try” because the two lead characters’ relationship is like that of two inexperienced dancers who must practice to learn the moves—which includes stepping on one another’s toes from time to time. And yet even though Junn and Richard are not always on the same wavelength, what they have never comes across as cliché. Credit to Cheng and Whishaw for delivering rich performances that inspire us to look a little closer at the screen and read between the silences.