Few dramas are as gentle and sensitive as Hong Khaou’s immensely moving debut Lilting – a film that, when carelessly calibrated, could easily slide down to mawkish grief porn. Its title, which refers to a rhythmn, the cadence of melancholy that flows between and around people after loss, is poetically apt – a sincere, hopeful attempt in making sense and finding meaning when you’ve lost a loved one and there are present emotional conflicts left to comprehend and unspool. Such is the emotional weight anchored in Lilting that the drama never descends into a wishy-washy pity party, where other films of the same ilk would instantly resort to immediately familiar sentimentality, schmaltz string orchestra and tidy conclusions supplying a simplistic, practical message that doesn’t go beyond the inelegant: “Move on, you can never bring the dead back.”
There are plenty of moping to be done here – but it’s a kind of moping that’s deeply felt. That everytime Ben Whishaw (sublime, heartbreaking and just fucking amazing) quietly cast a forlorn eye to an empty bed, or breaking still in mid-sentence or stoically looking at his dead lover’s mother who knew nothing of the affair, it seems like an invisible hand plunges into your ribcage, gently squeezing your most humane corner of your heart and make you feel the pain this man is carrying around. Imagine that final scene in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain where Heath Ledger reminisces his glorious old time with Jake Gyllenhaal by holding up the man’s shirt to his embrace, Lilting does that in most of its 91-minute running time. Richard, the man left behind, seeks to address the unspoken connection he had with his clandestine lover Khai with the person who had a strong bond with the man who passed away – his mother.
This is where Lilting elevates itself above the melodrama it could have been, perceptively exploring with such fine nuance and poignancy the ripples of love and loss, and the importance of communication and language in the road to healing. There are striking similarities between this and John Cameron Mitchell’s immensely affecting Rabbit Hole, both addressing grief and all its confounding complexity, a human predicament that could either break or bring people together. Richard chose the latter, both seeking refuge and at the same time connecting to the other thread of his relationship with Junn (Chinese legend Cheng Pei Pei in an extraordinarily composed yet moving performance) – an isolated Chinese-Cambodian immigrant who staunchly refuses to adapt to British living and its language. There are tiny moments of levity in their exchanges and Junn’s passing flings with fellow retiree in a care home – but Khaou’s purpose is crystal clear. He’s made an exquisitely melancholic heartbreaker about two people, despite differences and culture clashes, are brought together by the common language of grief. Love needs no translation. And loss knows no gender, age, ethnicity, race nor time. It’s a heavy burden for anyone to bear – and Lilting seeks with utter compassion and empathy to be there for somebody and help lighten the load.