Writer-director Hong Khaou’s slow-moving feature debut, Lilting, examines grief’s isolating effects through the eyes of two subjects: Chinese-Cambodian immigrant Junn (Cheng Pei-pei), whose son, Kai, is killed shortly before moving her away from her London retirement home, and Richard (Ben Whishaw), the lover Kai was working up the courage to tell her about.
It’s difficult to make a compelling film that begins in the midst of emotional disconnect, and Khaou never quite finds his rhythm, though his characters do become entangled: Richard decides to take responsibility for Junn’s well-being, hiring Vann (Naomi Christie) to serve as a translator during Junn’s dates with an elderly English suitor, Alan (Peter Bowles.) Richard’s idea is partly a ruse to get closer to the woman he hoped would one day become family, and Khaou creates a compelling tension between Whishaw’s stricken, almost febrile performance and Cheng’s stubbornly dignified one.
But where Junn and Richard are inescapably connected by shared grief, there’s no such logic governing the supporting players. There’s Alan, a horny old man who’s about as complex as the first question he has Vann translate: “What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” And Vann becomes a kind of narrative odd-jobber, serving food, cleaning Richard’s kitchen, and, embarrassingly, doling out Alan’s Viagra. Khaou also leaves out the subtitles when Vann is translating, which isolates Junn further — especially when the English-speaking characters have side conversations, which they do, frequently.
Her complex inner life is revealed to the audience through monologues, but it never translates (so to speak) to the others — a tragedy that remains buried beneath the niceties of language.