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In contemporary London, a Cambodian-Chinese mother mourns the untimely death of her son. Her world is further disrupted by the presence of a stranger. We observe their difficulties in trying to connect with each other without a common language as, through a translator, they begin to piece together memories of a man they both loved. Written by
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Memorable Depiction of the Possible Irreconcilability of Cultural Differences
Superficially speaking, the subject of LILTING resembles that of LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003), as Junn, a Cambodian Chinese mother (Pei-pei Cheng) living in London mourns the loss of her son Kai (Andrew Leung), while trying and failing to communicate with those around her. Kai's boyfriend Richard (Ben Whishaw), wants to help her, and engages the service of Vann, a translator (Naomi Christie) so that communication between himself and Junn might be improved. Meanwhile Alan (Peter Bowles), an elderly man, embarks on his own pursuit of Junn's hand.
However Hong Khaou's film looks at the difficulties of communication at a much deeper level than the purely linguistic. He invites us to reflect on the wisdom of Kai's decision to put his mother in sheltered accommodation, whose dingy décor is designed to make elderly people 'feel better.' Despite Richard's basic kindness and his protestations of endless love for Kai, we wonder whether he actually understand what either Kai or Junn actually think. Maybe it's not really necessary to hire a translator: communication between individuals can take place at a subliminal level. Vann does her best to act as an intermediary between Junn and Richard, or Junn and Alan, but it's clear that her role is a peripheral one in the drama of familial relationships across cultures.
Shot in deliberately dark colors, LILTING depicts a world whose protagonists live in perpetual isolation, both literal as well as psychological. Junn's sheltered accommodation is both dark and prison-like; her fellow-residents seldom communicate except in clichés (Alan included). Richard's apartment is full of long, brick-lined passages; his kitchen is full of dirty cutlery, suggesting a fundamental inability to cope with life.
Our relationship with the two central protagonists is a complex one. Whishaw tries his best to render Richard a sympathetic character, but the more effort he makes to try and bridge the cultural differences separating himself from Junn, the more frustrated he becomes. His final outburst, where he accuses Junn of failing to "assimilate" to contemporary British cultures, is a classic colonialist statement, leaving us to reflect on why he himself did not do more to adapt himself to her mores. By contrast Junn remains both silent and serene; her final soliloquy reveals her determination to continue her existence, despite the prospect of future loneliness. She does not need to "assimilate"; she has found her own way to negotiate the culture she inhabits.
Modestly budgeted yet memorably staged by a director with an obvious affinity for the material, LILTING is an absorbing cinematic experience.
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