Lilting opens with a conversation in Mandarin between Kai and Junn. As played by Andrew Leung and Cheng Pei-pei, this mother and son show deeper reservoirs of affection than usual, in large part because she’s a widow. They’re evenly matched: when the jabs come they’re parried with equal skill. After a few minutes it’s clear that writer-director Hong Khaou has shown a flashback. Kai is dead. Junn lives in a London retirement home with hideous wallpaper. Then Richard (Ben Whishaw) visits. She has never liked Richard, blaming him for interfering with her plans: she was going to move in with Kai until he took her place. And of course Richard should have interfered — he and Kai have been lovers for four years.
In his debut film, which premiered at Sundance last January but recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray, Hong wants to show how the survivors get on when obligations force them to commiserate. At the home Jenn entertains the possibility that she might hook up with Alan, played by Peter Bowles as a pip-pip-cheerio stereotype of a Brit whose insouciance about how little he cares about his children and grandchildren is its own kind of charm. But Richard keeps appearing, this time with a friend, Vann (Naomi Christie), whom he has persuaded to do the translating. With each subsequent meeting, tensions rise, for Kai hadn’t yet come out to his mother before his death. Quiet revelations come over tea and bacon sandwiches (Whishaw demonstrates serious chopstick skills).
When Ben Whishaw is on screen, the movie acquires a patina of sorrow and, gratifyingly, steel; “lilting” defines his acting. His is one of the more accurate portrayals of grief in recent movies, with not a concession to audience expectations. He suggests a guy whose considerable emotional resources require challenges, and Junn is the most formidable. He and Christie’s teamwork help; it also flouts expectations by never conceding a romantic frisson even as she necessarily gets more absorbed in this psychodrama. But for all its modesty Lilting is maladroit. Ordinarily I encourage flashbacks in student writing to remind them that our stories don’t resolve themselves in chronological order: we interpret the present by adducing experiences and guessing the future. Crisscrossing scenes between Kai and Richard, and Richard and Junn, and contemporaneous events is a drag on such a short film. They underline ambiguities and dispel mysteries; there’s nothing left to think about when the movie ends. Cheng’s halting relationship with Bowles unfolds like a continuous distraction. The obvious point, to which none of Hong’s setups allude, is how Junn has lived in perpetual mourning for most of her life; she thrives on grief, finding fulfillment in manipulating people to pity her. Hong could use a less heavy hand with the dialogue too. As much as I relish the image of Whishaw’s placing a bare foot on a chest belonging to a man of the male gender, the script can’t handle pillow talk. Kai: “For some reason she thinks you’re a dick.” Richard: “I love this dick *smooch on mouth*.
The other oddness about Lilting: what an uninhabited movie! No one has a job. They don’t drink or walk. To go by the incessant shots of interiors and overstuffed rooms you’d think this foursome lived in an abandoned London — in fact, it’s impossible to tell whether the movie isn’t set in Taipei, Hong Kong, or Fort Lauderdale. Hong loads more back story on Junn than his movie is prepared to show. The terrors of moving to London with a half-white Chinese French husband get aired and dismissed in classic show-don’t-tell fashion. As Lilting shuffles towards unearned pathos, it nevertheless keeps its good will — a tribute to Whishaw, Cheng to a lesser extent (American audiences will recognize her from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and its brevity.