Lilting’s opening scene evokes conversations immigrants might have with their children everywhere. As Junn (Pei-Pei Cheng) reproves her son Kai (Andrew Leung) for not spending enough time with her, for placing other commitments above his family, he responds gentle with a reverence she in turn trivializes, even as she obviously expects it.
The exchange, both familiar and sharp, leavens an otherwise stressful atmosphere, suggested early on by long shots of Junn alone in a retro-ugly bedroom, of the wintry grounds outside the sheltered accommodation where she currently lives, widowed. By contrast, this scene offers a moment of welcome, self-aware absurdity. Kai lets slip an adolescent, East London-inflected “Oh my God,” amid the Mandarin they use, following his mother’s impish confession that she’s found a man “for fun.” With Alan (Peter Bowles), she says, “kissing is kissing,” and he’s hardly a serious prospect for marriage because he is, after all, English.
The delights of this conversation give way to a sobering revelation, that it is a memory for Junn, who has lost her son as well as her husband. As she remembers, she also is drawn into a new relationship, one that becomes Lilting‘s focus. Kai’s boyfriend Richard (Ben Whishaw) comes to visit her, at first diffident and politely devastated. He wants to connect with Junn to quiet his lingering unease at being her rival for Kai’s attention, and at Kai’s failed plan to come out to her.
In an effort to help Junn adjust to the fact of his existence now, after Kai’s death, Richard engages interpreter Vann (Naomi Christie), who herself becomes a vital, sometimes disruptive, force in the narrative. Befriending Richard, Vann also helps Junn and Alan reach a tentative understanding, enough that they all share an exquisitely awkward candlelit dat. The delicacy of these intertwining relationships means that no single moment is definitive, however, and so Vann, unable to remain neutral, figures as well in a developing rift between Junn and Richard.
The Cambodian-Chinese Junn’s uncertainty has cause, of course, revealed in her eloquent description of her own experience as an immigrant. She also speaks of being afraid to return to her home country, framing her present relationships and isolation, her sense of loss and fear of new commitments. Though persistently lonely, she maintains her hard-won independence and regains a degree of agency over her life. She asserts that she can’t spend the rest of it with a man “like” Alan, accuses Richard of spending time with her only to ease his own guilt, and insists that she won’t be his “therapist.” Their exchange — so different from the one she shares with Kai at film’s start — devolves further when Richard expresses frustration at Junn’s inability to “assimilate” into English culture.
The tension here leads eventually to Richard’s decision to out himself and Kai, a moment that in comparison is almost anticlimactic. Though it might have worked as a dramatic revelation in the midst of the argument, it has quiet, more profound impact later when Junn agrees to visit Kai and Richard’s flat. Her response to Richard’s disclosure is complex, suggesting that she might have guessed at Kai’s relationship with Richard, that she’s noted the intimacy of some domestic details she glimpses at the flat. These details include, for instance, Richard’s habit of cooking bacon with chopsticks or the intense grief he displays occasionally, triggered by a word or a scent. The film’s final scene expands our understanding of what Junn may have known, or how she understood it, as she remembers her son in close-ups that make clear to us the anxiety in his face at the planned coming out.
Without Kai, and with and without a common language, Junn and Richard’s discussions are strained and given to misinterpretations. We might compare these to Junn’s talks with Alan, which are less difficult, and less focused on complete understanding of what either is saying. Lilting makes the point that emotional communication isn’t always aided by the right words, and that cultural assimilation isn’t only a function of learning a new language and may not be necessary for shared experience.
Such observations form a kind of frame for the more immediate plot of Lilting, which draws from some familiar genres, like the culture-clash comedy that ends in mutual acceptance, the defiant drama of coming out or the cute, patronizing late-in-life romance. But even as it might gesture toward these clichés, Hong Khaou’s movie also works its way around them, in order to become a more satisfying, original, and resonant experience.