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.