The subject of death is a complex one, and it is often glazed over in films as a temporary tangent to a larger narrative. On the contrary, in director Hong Khaou’s “Lilting,” the flux of nostalgia, reminiscence and crumbling recollections of the death of a lost one serve as the central premise for the film, which explores the settling dust after the death of Kai (Andrew Leung). “Lilting,” though simplistic in plot, unravels beautifully. It is entrenched in emotion as Kai’s boyfriend of four years, Richard, and mother, Junn, mutually depend on each other to recover from lives in limbo.
In the film, Khaou explores culture and sexuality in their most commonly obstructive forms. Richard, played by an anxious and aching Ben Whishaw (“Brideshead Revisited” and “Skyfall”), and Kai, played by half-Chinese Leung (“The List”), must tiptoe around the subject of Kai’s sexuality in front of Cambodian-Chinese Junn (Pei-pei Cheng). On the other hand, Junn excessively depends on Kai to ground her in a culture into which she hasn’t assimilated — let alone begun to understand. The unconventionality in these circumstances and especially in their intersection, renders the indie film a progressive one in its subject matter, yet it struggles to move past surface-level appeal.
The script isn’t particularly insightful — one of Junn’s sentiments in her final dialogue is indicative of the film’s depth overall: “These memories keep me secure in my loneliness.” Occasionally, the film will contemplate the transient nature of life and hint at the importance of accepting differences, but these moments are sparse in the 90-minute film’s brooding guilt and heartache.
Consequently, the tone is a little suffocating. The few moments of comic relief involving Junn’s creepy love interest, Alan, who frequently imagines having sex with Junn, the “exotic beauty,” don’t exactly ease the tension. The Viagra jokes are cringe-worthy.
The language barrier, though also interesting in theory, also acts as a minor setback to the film’s character development. Although translator Vann facilitates the conversation between the two characters, we are unable to wholly empathize with Chinese-speaking Junn without feeling like an outsider looking in. In their arguments, we naturally adopt Richard’s perspective as an English speaker and tend to write Junn off as unreasonable before we can even hear her translation.
The existence of these arguments, though, demonstrates the film’s laudable realism. The two broken loved ones don’t immediately hit it off and never do. In the aftermath of Kai’s passing, they blame each other and blame themselves, and both often retreat to heart-wrenching nostalgia and isolation. The film doesn’t act as a celebratory union between a mother and a boyfriend but instead as a magnifying glass into the lives of the two characters, who share estrangement within their separate homes: Junn in her permanent ’50s style nursing home — supposed to be temporary — and Richard in his flat, where he is haunted by Kai’s scent, habits and picture frames.
The narratives of both characters are lilting indeed, weaving in and out of reality and flashbacks. This switch between close-up shots and panning out of the frame, credited to cinematographer Urszula Pontikos, encourages viewers to relapse into memories with these characters, who wear not only intense dark circles but also poignant expressions of grief. Pontikos’ visual textures within these scenes, including Junn’s vintage wallpaper, snowy streets of contemporary London and Richard’s hip and cozy flat, are also noteworthy. They glisten in the background, giving viewers plenty to look at within the low-budget settings.
As we slowly fill in the gaps regarding Kai’s death through sudden flashbacks, we realize the film falls short in commentary, despite its complex relationships. As the drama chokes its characters with guilt, viewers at times cannot help but feel the same, gasping for a break from the despondency. The film forces viewers to search for some insightful dialogue to resonate with them — something that veers off the common path of “dealing with death is painful.” But at least the film, rescued by rich visual composition and unique arrangement in plot, shows that the aftermath of death can also be beautiful.
“Lilting” opens at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley on Friday.