Monday, August 4, 2014

Film Review: Lilting (2014)

Lilting poster

The symbolic place of the mother-in-law continues to hold a strange cultural position in Britain.  Relegated for years as the butt of jokes from seaside comedians such as Les Dawson they continue to be seen as one of the inevitable burdens that couples accept as part of a marriage.  This stereotype is a harsh (indeed misogynist) caricature of reality and feels like a ‘70s television/sitcom cliché more than a cinematic one.  But a difficult question can often create the most profound narratives:  What would you do if your partner died and left behind a lonely but vulnerable elderly mother that resented you?  First time director Hong Khaou probes this question in his new drama Lilting with masterful tact and insight. 

Kai (Andrew Leung) has recently relocated his Chinese-speaking mother Junn (Pei-pei Cheng) into a residential home in London whilst he makes preparations to help her move into his flat with his boyfriend Richard (Ben Whirshaw). Just before he can tell her he is killed in a car accident leaving the profoundly grief stricken Richard to try and help Junn integrate more with the world around her. 

Richard discovers that Junn has met Alan (Peter Bowles) another resident of the home so hires the help of translator Vann (Naomi Christie) to allow them to communicate.  The narrative travels between Richard desperately trying to engage with the melancholic and lonely older women, and Kai and Richard as they had prepared to help her integrate more with London and the world around her.

The film brilliant challenges stereotypes around age, sexuality and generational apathy.  Kai and Richard have an endearing gay relationship based on love and kinship rather than the tired cinematic focus on homosexual sex and desire, and instead the most energetic libido is reserved for Alan – again challenging the myth that older people have diminished sexual desires.

Lilting is a film about the little details that connect people: the thoughtful banality of bringing someone fruit, cooking bacon with chopsticks, missing the way that your lover used to smell your armpit, the joys of taking a bus in a city… All of these unspoken elements are what gives depth to a relationship and the film delicately recognises their importance.

It is also a film about the importance and tenderness of non-verbal communication.  It shows that people can enjoy each others company and learn about each other without using language, and the most important and affecting scene in the film has Richard and Junn confessing things to each other each in a language the other does not speak.  It is at this moment that they are at their closest.  

Pei-pei Cheng & Ben Whirshaw

The editing has a dreamlike ambiance as conversations are shown sometimes disjointed as speech become voice-over and back again.  It’s as if the film is trying to remember the conversations instead of relaying them as fact.  This gives a humanity to the story that reflects the tragedy of trying to remember someone who has died, they exist in fragments that over time seem to change shape and fall apart.  The title of the film could refer to the waning disposition of Junn who is lost without her son, or it could refer to the painful nature of diminishing memories.  I prefer the second reading.

The film isn’t all sadness though.  There are also very funny moments of cultural misunderstanding, especially where Alan finally gets his translator and has no idea what to say.  This isn’t just light relief though; it also just realistically reflects the inherent awkwardness that inevitably arises in life.

It is sometimes hard for audiences to bring themselves to watch a tragic film, as the popular function of cinema is to be exciting, escapist and sociable – but this denies the powerful feelings of empathy that can come from watching touching drama.  Lilting is one of the best films that I have seen this year and will probably be my favourite UK film of 2014.  I also challenge you to watch it and not fall in love with Ben Whirshaw…

I first watched this film at the BFI Flare back in February and then again at the East End Film Festival and it has been really hard to wait this long to talk about it...

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