Ben Whishaw shines in this sensitive culture clash drama from debut writer-director Hong Khaou
Cambodian writer-director Hong Khaou helms this grief-infused, London-set culture clash drama, a debut feature which ambitiously takes in alienation, prejudice and the severing and strengthening power of loss. Lilting's impact is increased tenfold by a striking performance from Ben Whishaw, exuding heartache and compassion at the film's core.
Whishaw plays Richard, a man permanently teetering on the brink of tears following the death of his partner Kai (Andrew Leung). Motivated by what appears to be genuine concern, Richard is trying to forge a relationship with Kai's elderly Cambodian-Chinese mother Junn (martial arts legend Pei-pei Cheng) despite her ignorance to the nature of his and Kai's relationship, hostility towards him and intractable disinterest in any kind of cultural assimilation. She's residing, irritably, in a care home where she's being courted by the mischievous and rather old-fashioned Alan (Peter Bowles).
Khaou's outsider's eye is well matched to this story of a lonely, resentful woman whose sole tie to the society that surrounds her has been cut. Junn is a difficult character, presented sympathetically and against a backdrop of dated decor intended to provoke nostalgia for an era of British culture she never knew.
The rather uninspired score distracts from the film's emotional potency and, although it's crisply and sensitively shot, the sporadic tendency toward a bright, bleached aesthetic (a style which cinematographer Urszula Pontikos employed to better effect in the superb Weekend) dilutes its visual impact.
Yet the performers bring sincerity and their reactions ring movingly true. Cheng and Whishaw are wonderful and Bowles, too, is charming as an out-of-practice lothario whose presence and methods of seduction introduce a touch of mirth. If there's an occasionally uncertain link here it's Naomi Christie as Vann, the translator who brings these disparate characters together.
Lilting isn't a film of simple solutions and happy endings but, for all its sorrow, what it leaves you with is hope.
Selected release from Fri 8 Aug.