Starring: Ben Wishaw, Pei-pei Cheng, Naomi Christie
Director: Hong Khaou
If it hadn’t already been snapped up by another director, a good alternative title for this film would have been Lost in Translation. Junn (Pei-pei Cheng), a Chinese Cambodian woman, is stuck in a British nursing home, hardly able to speak a word of the language. She’s grieving the loss of her only son, Kai (Andrew Leung), and she blames Richard (Ben Wishaw), Kai’s “best friend”, for having kept them apart. What she doesn’t realize is that Kai was gay, and it was his own unwillingness to share this with his mother that caused him to hold her at a distance. Feeling responsible for her and unsure what to do, Richard plucks up the courage to visit Junn. Discovering that she is conducting a mild flirtation with another of the home’s residents, Richard hires a translator to help things along, and soon the two of them become deeply involved in trying to nurture this fledgling romance.
For a film that’s all about feelings of misery and awkwardness, Hong Khaou’s feature debut has a remarkable sense of ease. It flows gently, cherishing its wounded characters. It drifts effortlessly into flashbacks in which we meet Kai, a handsome charmer speaking estuary English. Much of the dialogue sounds semi-improvised and off-the-cuff. It’s calming to look at too, shot in a palette of delicate beige and faded rose that speaks to its bitter-sweet mood.
The first-time writer/director draws moments of wry comedy from the characters’ misunderstandings, clashes and comings-together. Vann, the translator (played with winning freshness by newcomer Naomi Christie) goes from observer to vocal participant, and the tall, tweedy Alan (Junn’s beau and the closest the movie has to a stock comic figure, but given a feeling of earthy truthfulness by Peter Bowles) throws in his own droll asides. But there’s toughness too, especially in the performance of Pei-pei Cheng – she’s stubborn, resentful, occasionally spiteful, but she’s not going away either: she’s a survivor. As for Ben Wishaw’s Richard, he’s perhaps the most telling and attractive character of all – a frail, sensitive figure barely holding it together at times, but someone who instinctively finds some relief for his feelings in acts of kindness and consideration towards others.
Warm, touching, surprising, expertly crafted, Lilting is an impressive debut by any standards, and it seems all the more so when you discover that it was shot in just 17 days, on a budget of £120,000. This, and much more, is revealed on informative audio commentary with Hong Khaou which accompanies the film on DVD. There’s also a 16-minute behind the scenes interview with Wishaw and Christie, with the latter talking enthusiastically about how much she identified with the relationship between Kai and Junn in the movie.