Lilting is proof that you don’t need a budget of millions to make a beautifully sensitive and totally absorbing film, as well as an award-winning one. It’s the debut of Hong Khaou, a London-based, Cambodian-born writer-director, made for less than £120,000 and a winner at the Sundance Film Festival.
It begins with Kai (Andrew Leung) visiting his mother Junn (Cheng Pei-pei) in a residential home on the night he tried, but failed, to tell his mother the truth about his relationship with his gay lover Richard, played by Ben Whishaw. We soon realise this is only a memory and that something terrible has happened to Kai. The relationship between the two young men is woven into the story through flashbacks which gracefully merge the past with the present to reveal a tender love story. There are poignant scenes where they lie together in bed, and scenes where they argue about what to do about Kai’s mother, who still hasn’t learnt English after many years in the country and who is living her life through her son.
In his sorrow Richard tries to reach out to Junn, all the time trying to hide the truth about his relationship from the one person who can share his pain. But Junn has always disliked Richard; Kai and his memory belong to her, and she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge what she must surely know. He can barely contain the struggle to maintain the pretence, as his frustration and resentments surface. The misunderstandings between them are not helped by the interpreter he’s hired, and in the end it’s not words but the unspoken language of grief that connects them.
There are some lighter moments, and some humour at the expense of the of the elderly and their sex lives when Junn meets Alan played by Peter Bowles, but the strength of the film is the relationship between Richard and Junn, played so beautifully by both actors. Whishaw is quite simply outstanding, his every movement and expression bearing the weight of the terrible pain of grief.