Lilting – A Friendship Formed By Grieving Strangers: Film Review (Spoiler Alert)

For the 16th consecutive year, ReelOut Arts Project Inc. has engaged the Kingston public by hosting a film festival that highlights independent films that are centered about queer art productions and, as such, embody thematic motifs that discuss and explore related realities prevalent to queer communities and individuals’ histories. One piece showcased at the festival this year is Lilting. With unassuming candor and simplicity, director Hong Khaou’s debut piece delicately addresses the situated power structures and ideologies that cross culturally ruminate about the issues of race, sexuality, culture, health and age.

With eerie eloquence, Lilting addresses the themes of loss, love, isolation, companionship and divergent and conflicting cultural rhetoric, as Junn (Cheng Pei-Pei), a Chinese-Cambodian mother, and her late son’s boyfriend, Richard (Ben Whishaw), grapple with the sudden death of the son, Kai (Andrew Leung). The film documents the precarious development that Junn and Richard’s relationship takes, through a pedagogical story-telling medium, as both characters struggle with reality, loss and rebuilding following the tragedy. The earnest and emotionally proactive performance by Ben Whishaw, emblematically captures the internal struggle that his character experiences as he tries to honour his boyfriend’s memory and wishes, by not revealing the true nature of their relationship to Junn, while simultaneously grasping to hold on to the only remaining vestige of Kai. The situation is further muddled by an absolute language barrier, which results in Junn and Richard being unable to expressively communicate with each other. Richard takes on a translator in an attempt to mitigate this cultural divide, and the budding friendship and banter that spawns between Richard and translator Vann (Naomi Christie), provides a reprise from the onerous undertones of the film.

The overt symbolism employed by Khaou, in regard to the provocative and engaging use of language as an artistic tool, and the respective lack of ascribed subtitles employed throughout the piece, aptly confers the confusion that both Junn and Richard experience throughout their interactions in the movie, as they are only able to understand an abridged and filtered version of their dialogue. This parabolic imagery is a brilliantly employed creative choice and is symbolic of the disadvantaged position that these two characters hold, in relationship to established situated power structures, in their inability to freely express themselves, their thoughts, feelings and opinions, as a non-cisgendered man and as an immigrant woman living in a Western country. The film also critically analyzes homogenizing held constructs which surround family structures and the corrosive results that such fixed and established constructs can have on the psyche of individuals. The majority of the film is pervaded by an inherent understanding of the presumed disapproval and disdain that Junn has towards Richard and Kai’s relationship, as understood by Richard’s interpretation of the situation, and an assumed set of held beliefs. However, as the movie nears the end, the friction between Junn and Richard climaxes and Richard reveals the true nature of his and Kai’s relationship to Junn. It culminates with the discovery that the aversion Junn fosters towards Richard was more about cultural diverging notions of family structure and responsibilities, and a lack of integration into British culture, than being situated about homophobia.

The entire piece is rote with passive, yet overt, symbolism and is raw in detail, with little revealed about the characters beyond their respective relationships with Kai. By doing so, Khaou ensures that the attention of the viewers is chiefly directed towards the situated themes of the piece. The artistic lens employed throughout the film is shot with a sfumato overtone which envelopes the entire piece with a hazy overlay, adding another dimension of movement and depth to the film, which is emblematic of the confusion that surrounds the multifaceted set of emotions about the piece. In particular, the haze and muted tones which wash over the film are symbolic of the lack of authentic reality and the false truth that is being presented to Junn, with both Richard and Kai’s decision, for the majority of the film, to not disclose the true nature of their relationship. This symbolism, in combination with the hauntingly beautiful flashback scenes to the last moments that each Junn and Richard shared with Kai, are imperative agents in documenting the progression of time throughout the course of the film. It is the truthfulness in the form of symbolism utilized by Khaou that allows the emblematic symbolism to resonate with the audience and thus, add a level of unparalleled authenticity.

Lilting, and the Reelout Arts Project as a whole, are framed within a critical discourse, which confers the need for an intersectional analysis of the institutionalized, situated power structures that ruminate and determine the social worlds that we experience. Both the movie and festival play a fundamentally important role in facilitating a discussion that addresses the existence of an apathetic social consciousness, particularly in regard to gender, race and sexuality, and conferring that change is drastically needed, while simultaneously showcasing tremendous, under-represented and acknowledged talent.

– Elin

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6 thoughts on “Lilting – A Friendship Formed By Grieving Strangers: Film Review (Spoiler Alert)

  1. Rosa Queen

    Hi Elin,
    You have produced a lovely review that highlighted the more obscured themes in this film. For example, you brought up the concept of loss as the bridging factor between Junn and Richard and how this unites them even as they struggle to communicate to each other. You also brought up the point that the film does not blatantly give you the answers that you ask, most of these responses are rooted in subtext and emotional understanding rather than being handed to the viewer. I believe that this factor only goes to strengthen the realism in this film. You also comment on the presentation of intersectionality and perceived homophobia, where in reality there is not so much hatred for Junn and Richard’s relationship, but rather a misunderstanding brought on through a clash of cultural norms. My question to you is what role do you think Vann plays in this film? Considering the friendship between her and Richard is one of the few reprieves from the serious undertone of the film, was she a necessary addition? Or simply a way of relieving the tension in the viewers?
    Looking forward to your next post!

    -Rosa Queen

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    1. Elin

      Hi Rosa,

      I believe that Vann’s character plays a pivotal role in the film, as she allows Junn’s story to be told from her own perspective, rather then having people speak in her best interest. In that way, I feel like the inclusion of Vann as a character, not only provides a reprieve from the heavy content of the film but allows acts as a symbolic agent that challenges societal held notions on gender roles. One example of this is that it isn’t until Vann arrives and starts translating between Junn and love interest Alan, that it becomes known that she genuinely dislikes the intimacy of their relationship, and has until that point been unable to communicate such sentiments.

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  2. Darkling

    Hi Elin,
    Reading your review, my first thought is that you must have a background in Film and Media analysis! You do an excellent job at pinpointing the technical aspects of the film that make it so successful in conveying its messages. I avoided watching this film because it seemed sad, but your review makes me really wish I had gone to it. One thing that stands out to me about Lilting is that Junn is not only marginalized racially, but is also portrayed by an older actress: while older women do frequently get placed in the role of mother in film, this role is rarely a complex, central one. Seeing an older woman of colour in a significant and nuanced role was very exciting. Ben Whishaw’s character being a gay transgender man is also exciting: trans characters are almost non-existent in film, and so few of those characters are also portrayed as queer that many people are not aware that someone can be trans and queer simultaneously. I was wondering though, do you think it is bad for a cisgender man like Ben Whishaw to play a trans man? There are very few roles available to trans actors, so does a fairly established cis man taking this role lead to further marginalization and erasure of trans people?
    I think the lack of subtitles and use of language throughout the film is a very strong artistic decision, mirroring the barrier between Junn and Richard. Do you think this also works to force English-speaking audience members out of their comfort zone and to challenge them to step outside of their privileged positionality? English tends to be extremely privileged globally as a language due to imperialism, and people for whom English is a first language are accustomed to being catered to.
    Based on your review, I will definitely have to watch Lilting myself. It sounds incredible!

    -Darkling

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    1. Elin

      Hi Darkling,

      Thank you for your kind words! You raise a very interesting point in regard to the lack of subtitles and the resulting implication that it has by forcing native English speakers to evaluate their positionality, and the general privileged position that one holds having English as their first language. I felt that this cinematic choice was possibly the most inspired decision that the director could have made, because it did both force one out of their comfort zone and to evaluate their privilege but also, I found, made the movie much more honest, true and gripping as it mirrored reality more. That is, the film wasn’t shot from an outside perspective, rather I felt inherently connected and sympathetic to Richard’s character who was struggling to simply communicate with Junn.

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  3. Moira

    Hello Elin! Thank you so much for your review. I really enjoyed reading this – your thick description and analysis was impressive! I noticed that both your post and the other post on Lilting mentioned the language barrier and lack of subtitles as an artistic device – I think that this is really important and I’m glad that you touched on it. Both reviews also mentioned that the film was quite challenging, emotionally and critically. Without having seen the film, it makes me think that this was done quite intentionally: grief is scary, confusing, horrible, and in some ways “untranslatable”. Both Junn and Richard are experiencing different griefs – from very different positionalities – and they are trying to convey this to one another across cultural, age, and sexual barriers. Darkling mentioned in a comment that she avoided this movie because it seemed so sad – and I must admit – I did to. So, I applaud you for heading in there and watching and writing for us! Again, you did an excellent job of vividly describing the film. Thank you so much for your review, and I hope to read more from you in the future!

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  4. gndsgirl11 Post author

    Hi Elin,

    You did an excellent job of describing the film and almost painting a clear picture of what the movie could look like. Having seen Lilting myself it was really interesting for me to read your interpretation and opinion of the film. I thought it was interesting to see the difference in opinions, and the way we both reacted to the film. Reading your analysis, I gathered that you had a much stronger understanding of the film and its essence. I enjoyed the way you addressed the parts of the film you did not like in a very elegant way, almost making it seem as though it was still a positive review. I must say that I agree with most of your opinions, specifically in regards to how the film was difficult and challenging. I found that while I was watching the film I was so focused on trying to understand exactly what was going on that I misunderstood some parts of the film. Your analysis has helped me understand more about the film, and to accept that it was directed the way it was for a reason. When you talk about how there was little detail about the characters lives revealed and said “Khaou ensures that the attention of the viewers is chiefly directed towards the situated themes of the piece,” it helped me accept that there was a reason for the lack of detail and to focus purely on the depth and complexity of their relationship at one specific point in their lives. Thank you for a wonderful review of this film.

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