Film Review: “Lilting”, a Drama With Much to Say on Communication

By Eder Guzman

In the film “Lilting”, written and directed by Hong Khaou, we are introduced to an older Chinese woman living alone. There is a sweeping shot of her room, filled with pictures of her loved ones, and not much else. She is in a foul and defiant mood after a talk with her son, Kai, whom she believes has forced her out of his life. We come to learn that he is living with his lover, Richard, played by Ben Wishaw, and is dealing with having to tell her he is gay. The issue they have has to be resolved without Kai, whom we learn has passed away. Richard feels obligated to tell her the truth, and has hired a translator to help Kai’s mother.

The movie tackles the idea of communication, between Richard and Kai’s mother, the translator and Richard, and Kai’s mother and her boyfriend Alan. Khaou wanted to use language “as an analogy to comment on communication”. Khaou grew up translating shows for his mother, and had wanted “to use ‘the translator’ as a narrative device”. True communication between people is intimate and unimpeded, a feeling promoted greatly by the cinematography, with Richard even commenting on how wonderful her room is.

Most of the movie is shot indoors, and use distilled light to perfectly illuminate the characters expressions and motives. Kai’s mother believes that Richard’s relationship with Kai is what impeded her and Kai to live together, and Richard has a hard time disproving her. As we are taken through Richard and Kai’s relationship, and it is clear that Kai keeps her in his thoughts and worries about her situation. Richard tells her how Kai was continually frustrated by his mother’s unwillingness of learning English, and how he felt crippled by it. The translator Junn, played by Naomi Christie, speaks with her Kai’s mother and tries to comfort her. The mother, played by Cheng Pei Pei, is having none of it, and storms off.

Later on, they begin speaking again, and there is talk about how to split Kai’s belongings. Richard bonds with Kai’s mother at the thought of Kai’s room, and how it still smells like him. As they reminisce about Kai. Richard tells her that Kai was gay, and how they were planning to tell her the night of his passing.

She tells him that children will always worry about their parents, there is no way around that frustration, and parents have no manner of completely reassuring them since it is only natural to worry. She says that her grief will pass, and Richard does not need to preoccupy himself with worry. Throughout the film, we are taken on a magical carpet ride of guilt and self-punishment through the eyes of Richard, and his journey to resolve the misunderstood perception Kai’s mother has of him.

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