24TH MAY: LILTING (HONG KHAOU, 2014)

This date in film can be glimpsed on a Teenagersintokyo poster in Richard (Ben Whishaw) and Kai’s (Andrew Leung) bedroom, in Hong Khaou’s understated, impressive debut feature Lilting (2014).

After Kai’s death, his mother, Junn (Pei-Pei Cheng) has been invited round for supper by Richard. She is Cambodian-Chinese and doesn’t speak any English. Prior to his death, Kai had arranged for Junn to live in a retirement home as a temporary measure to prepare for her living with him and Richard permanently. However, Junn is apparently unaware that they were a couple. She comes to resent Richard for taking up so much of her son’s time.

Her only family gone, Richard now feels it is his responsibility to care for Junn. On hearing that she has grown close to Alan (Peter Bowles), another resident at the home, Richard contacts translator Vann (Naomi Christie) to help them all to communicate, whilst taking care not to reveal his and Kai’s relationship. Richard’s efforts seem to be failing, each gesture met with cold indifference from Junn.

However, while looking around her son’s room, Junn seems to change. Does she already know that he was gay? Has seeing the room confirmed her suspicions? Richard is seen removing any ‘evidence’ before she arrives, but Junn says she can still smell Kai in the room. Khaou leaves these questions unanswered. However, it is a beautifully observed, ambiguous scene. And a turning point in Richard and Junn’s relationship as, when returning downstairs seeing Richard frying bacon with chopsticks, she seems to become more accepting of him.

Acceptance, communication, as well as memory (it is implied that Junn might have early onset Alzheimer’s disease), are important themes in the film. The translation metaphor, and strategic use of subtitling, relates to the role communication plays in ‘coming out’ and as a way of preserving treasured memories. The rhythmic, lyrical visuals (complementing the film’s title) and the associations of sexuality with guilt – albeit from different cultural contexts – recall the work of Terence Davies, making Hong Khaou a filmmaker to watch in the future.

 

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