Lilting is not a character study. You’d think it’d be a character study since it’s studying two characters to the detriment of all else (including the actors’ performances), but it’s actually a flashback-filled attempt at lyricism. Except for Lilting and writer and director Khaou, lyricism just means flashbacks. And the same editing device where dialogue plays between cuts, so someone won’t be talking on-screen during a shot because the shot’s from after they got done talking, but the sound will be their dialogue over their unmoving lips in close-up. Khaou and editor Mark Towns must think this fracturing device adds something to the scene because they do it repeatedly.
Lilting’s a series of unconsidered narrative devices; they’re not bad on their own, sometimes even good (or potentially good); strung together, they don’t add up.
The film’s about an intensely dramatic situation. Cheng Pei-pei is a Chinese-Cambodian woman who’s been a British citizen for thirty years; she never learned any English. In old age, she relied on son Andrew Leung to negotiate the English-speaking world for her. He stuck her in an old folks’ home, decorated like the fifties and sixties, to try to confuse the residents into thinking they’re young, but it just makes them sadder.
Then he died.
It takes most of the movie to find out how and why he died.
But he died, and she thinks about him a lot, hence the flashbacks. Sometimes the flashbacks transition into the present day through editing hijinks. Khaou knows the flashbacks will have an emotional intensity, but he doesn’t want to do anything with that intensity. Just create it and let it sit, which is fine when the film’s building to something.
Only Lilting isn’t building to anything. Quite the opposite; it’s a denial of building to anything. But for most of the runtime, Khaou pretends it’s going somewhere to get some dramatic momentum.
Leung’s boyfriend, Ben Whishaw, comes to the old folks’ home to visit Cheng, and she’s not happy to see him. Unfortunately, Leung never told mom Cheng he was gay, so instead, she thinks Whishaw is her dead son’s shitty, bossy white guy roommate.
Whishaw hires an amateur translator, Naomi Yang, for Cheng and her old folks’ boyfriend, Peter Bowles. Most of the film will be Cheng and Yang talking in Mandarin without subtitles. There are some subtitles, but only when the movie wants the intended audience to know what’s going on. I wonder how it plays to native Mandarin speakers, especially moms over fifty who thought they’d be seeing a movie about Cheng. Instead, it’s mainly about Whishaw projecting on her. Sympathetically.
Whishaw’s a well of hurt, which makes him somewhat sympathetic, but he’s got no character otherwise. The film holds off on various reveals—which it misuses—until the third act. Before then, we mostly see Whishaw being kind of shitty to Yang, whom he meets at the beginning of the movie. She decides, through thick or thin, she will sacrifice her dignity for whatever Whishaw’s paying her.
Yang gets the least amount of character but puts in the work, acting-wise.
After her, there’s Bowles. He’s middling. Some of it is the script, some is the part, and some is just Bowles not having pizzazz.
Cheng’s good. She ought to be the way Khaou spotlights her unspoken grief and trauma. Shame it doesn’t inform a character or performance.
Leung’s unimpressive as the dead son in flashbacks. He either scowls with his shirt on or off, buffly. It’s really not his fault; there’s nothing in the script except pouting and being buff.
Lilting’s got some lovely photography from Urszula Pontikos, and the second act’s compelling, but Khaou bungles the conclusion. The first act’s awkward as Khaou tries to establish the narrative structure, but then he changes it for the superior second act. At least the first act builds to something. The third act’s all about throwing away the movie.
It’s disappointing. Cheng, Whishaw, Yang, and even Bowles put in enough work they ought to get a movie out of it.