Movie Review - Lilting

Cheng Pei Pei (left) and Ben Whishaw in "Lilting"
Writer-director Hong Khaou has created one of the most beautiful and one of the saddest films of the year. It's also by far one of the best.

Cheng Pei Pei (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) stars as Junn, a 60-year-old, Cambodian-Chinese woman who lives in a retirement home in England but doesn't like it. She would rather live with her adult son Kai, played by Andrew Leung, but there is a hesitancy for her to move there. Two reasons prevent her. Both reasons revolve around Richard, played by Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas and Skyfall).

Junn doesn't like Richard who is Kai's roommate. She doesn't like him probably because Kai spends more time with him than he does with her. Kai does come to visit her, but he's late sometimes and forgetful of things regarding her, so she suspects Richard is negatively affecting her son. Junn refuses to assimilate into English culture like learn the language, so she depends a lot on Kai, which adds to her frustration about Kai's negligence or increasing absence.

However, it's not just Junn who has a problem. It's Kai as well. For Kai, Richard isn't just a roommate. Richard is Kai's lover. Yet, Kai hasn't told his mother that he's gay, and he's not eager to do so. Having Junn move into his flat would make it difficult for Kai to hide his homosexuality.

Aside from the gorgeous photography, which is absolutely beautiful, what Khaou does so well is fluidly present memory, flashback and fantasy as well as transition between them all with as much seamless ease as Park Chan Wook but with more grace and minus the ostentation. Khaou is also more playful with language and image-sound linkage.

A problem that the characters face is the speaking barrier. Richard goes to visit Junn, yet he only speaks English and Junn speaks six languages but none are English. Richard decides to get a friend who speaks her main language and translate. Vann, played by Naomi Christie, is the translator.

What Khaou then does is something that's tantamount to voice-over but not voice-over. Many films have done this, but you'll see a shot of someone who isn't talking, yet we'll hear that person's voice and it will be dialogue pulled from another shot. These voices rise and then fall as the title suggests, and Khaou does this over and over again here. We see and hear this constantly that we feel, and subconsciously understand, that communication is the key issue. Regardless if people speak the same language or not, communication continues to be something that can be a struggle.

At the same time, Khaou also has created a great expression on aging. Pei Pei's performance is wonderful of course. Yes, there is loneliness, frustration and sadness, but Pei Pei is a beautiful woman and smart, so the fact that we do see her dating is important. As such, Cheng Pei Pei's performance here might be the most significant performance from an Asian actress her age since Yoon Jeong-hee in Poetry (2011).

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 31 mins.


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