Whishaw takes on the role of Richard, a man torn apart by the passing of his boyfriend Kai (played by Andrew Leung). Opposite him is Chinese actress Pei-Pei Cheng, who plays Junn, Kai’s grieving, Mandarin speaking mother. In an act of love for Kai and in order to help Junn, Richard hires English/Mandarin translator Van (Naomi Christie) so that the two can communicate.
The film starts with Kai and Junn as they discuss her budding relationship with Alan, played by Peter Bowles, in a charmingly sweet scene between mother and son. But don’t get too comfy, after they are interrupted the sudden onscreen disappearance of Kai gives you the lip-quivering feeling that he is no longer of this world. Unfortunately this feeling stays with you throughout Lilting as every time Kai makes an appearance on screen you are filled with dread as you know that he is doomed.
In lonely desperation Richard reaches out to Junn in order to retain some piece of Kai. The first awkward visit to her care home doesn’t go so well as there is no familiar language between the two characters, an interesting tool used by Khaou. By using the language barrier to stop the characters connecting Khaou keeps them from resolving the issues they have with each other for almost an hour and a half. But don’t worry, translator Van will see to that, before you know it Junn is able to communicate with the people around her, but that doesn’t mean that everything is going to be rainbows and butterflies. After years of lingual isolation it turns out that Junn doesn’t always play well with others, as she is seen to be the perpetrator of almost every argument throughout, but give her a break, her son did die after all.
A reoccurring element of the Lilting is the trepidation Kai feels about telling his mother about his sexuality. After Kai’s death Richard takes it upon himself to look after the old woman and eventually tells her the truth about her son. However he says it in English so chances are she has no idea what he’s going on about– but never mind, it’s the thought that counts. This all goes down in the climatic final scene of the film (the one you could tell was coming, where they all accept everything) yet certain matters still remain unresolved.
Despite having the smallest role, the spotlight has to go to Andrew Leung. Leung’s conviction to the role gives even the great Ben Whishaw a run for his money. He demands the attention of every scene he appears in (probably because you know he’ll be dead soon) and you are left with your own grief, much like the characters on screen, wishing you had just a few more moments with him.
An interesting technique of Khaou’s is to transition memory in to present. Living characters are somewhat removed from their memories with Kai, many times they are in mid conversation with him when they are overcome with a look of regret and stop talking yet the conversation continues as far as Kai is aware. Perhaps the rawest time this happens is within a scene between Richard and Kai, the two are getting along just fine in a lovely little scene until Richard has to go and remind everyone his boyfriend’s dead.
Despite the overall feel of the film Lilting carries a gentle sense of humour that is appropriate in the face of such overwhelming grief. You chuckle at jokes that aren’t particularly funny like calling the old multilingual Chinese woman a lazy bitch because she never bothered to learn English. Funny stuff.
Overall the film is a sensitive, honest and gentle portrayal of how far love extends beyond the grave. There’s no falseness to it, it is what it says on the box. If you like Whishaw then you are definitely in for a treat. Also, if you happen to know someone who is annoyingly positive all the time then by all means take them to see Lilting in order to dull them down for an evening.