By Don Simpson | September 13, 2014
Director: Hong Khaou
Writer: Hong Khaou
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Pei-pei Cheng, Peter Bowles, Naomi Christie, Andrew Leung
Richard’s (Ben Whishaw) is still dealing with the emotional turmoil of the unexpected death of his lover, Kai (Andrew Leung). This prompts Richard to form a connection with Kai’s mother (Pei Pei Cheng) who was begrudgingly forced into a retirement home when Kai decided to live with Richard. Kai’s mother never knew that he was gay, so she never understood why he would choose to reside with Richard over her. Resentful of Richard for stealing her son, Kai’s mother is hesitant to let Richard into her life; but without Richard, Kai’s mother has no one.
As writer-director Hong Khaou’s profoundly meditative Lilting progresses, Richard and Kai’s mother fumble around the possibility of forging a friendship. Riddled with extreme grief and guilt, Richard is grasping at straws to keep his memories of Kai alive. All the while, Kai’s non-English-speaking mother finds herself hopelessly isolated in a retirement home that seems more like a time capsule and in desperate need of someone with whom to communicate.
Kai’s mother, a Cambodian-Chinese immigrant, finds herself cut off from the English-speaking world out of stubbornness. Stoically determined to remain true to her ancestry, Kai’s mother perceives the learning of another language as a form of cheating on her homeland. Just as the retirement home seems frozen by its obsession with the past, so is Kai’s mother.
Khaou confidently maintains a languidly contemplative pacing that mirrors the overwhelming feeling of sadness that pervades the narrative. Lilting is shaped by a loose assembly of scenes that seamlessly drift between reality and memory, permitting the existential struggle brewing within Kai’s mother to run parallel with Kai’s struggle with his sexuality.
Mostly removing the gayness from the narrative, Khaou creates an asexual film that is essentially gender-neutral. Rather, Lilting is about the importance of defining oneself while maintaining a connection with those around you. Kai’s mother obsession with her own identity eventually leaves her alone and scared, while Kai’s difficulty in expressing himself leaves him dead. Too much self-confidence is just as bad as too little.