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He, who navigated with success
the dangerous river of his own birth
once more set forth

on a voyage of discovery
into the land I floated on
but could not touch to claim.

Margaret Atwood, “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” (1969)

As the days grow shorter, the air colder, the wind sharper, I long for the quiet films. As the artist Andrew Wyeth says, “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.” Hong Khaou’s debut film Lilting has much of the same quality, sharing lifeblood with Arvo Pärt‘s Für Alina, at once sparse and poignant. Though modest, it is a profoundly delicate and graceful meditation on loss and human connection, coupled with the mechanical insufficiencies of language within the landscape of the immigrant experience.

Creating an atmosphere of intimacy in film is difficult, not least because there is an expectation of an audience, but Lilting maintains its quiet hesitancy throughout. Softly, softly it proceeds, as though dream-like. Though interleaved with occasional shots of the tranquil scenes of a city winter, the majority of the film takes place indoors, either in the anachronistic chintz of Junn’s (Cheng Pei Pei) nursing home, evoking 1960s nostalgia; or the contemporary grey murmur of London cafes and bedrooms. As such, it becomes a very internal film, reflecting the inner, meditative lives of the characters. On film, grief is best spoken with few words, and the most affecting scenes are those with none at all; all is sufficient with a sideways glance surrounded by the ambient acoustics of life continuing forward. As such, it is an exceptionally bare and exposed film, with no tricks behind which to hide – emotions are on full display, making the imperative of concealment for the characters that much more urgent. The inadequacies of language are very much at the forefront of the film, not only cross-lingually, but of expressing identity. Language becomes not a tool of expression, but of concealment, as Kai (Andrew Leung) evades all attempts to come out to his mother through half-truths and changes of subject. It is both barrier and bridge to communication, as Richard (Ben Whishaw) and Vann (Naomie Christie) bravely make attempts of goodwill and welcome, while Junn remains curiously intransigent throughout.

Junn’s language of grief is a deeply private one, and her reticence at forming a bond with her late son’s lover should not be mistaken as malicious, but one borne out of cultural custom. Indeed, much of Junn’s falling-out with fellow nursing home resident Allen is a misinterpretation of such customs, and it is all to easy for a Western audience to judge her actions without being sensitive to their origin. Unsurprisingly, Hong Khaou demonstrates great cultural sensitivity and observance of Junn’s grief, in addition to Richard’s, without judgement. Clearly affected by autobiographical experience, Khaou creates a portrait of Junn’s past in French Indochina and her immigration to England. The matter of assimilation is raised, and Khaou allows us to see it from several perspectives – Kai’s frustration with his mother’s unwillingness, Junn’s reservations, and Richard’s receptiveness. For any first-generation immigrant, it is a triple-sided die that hits very close to home, and without directing it forcefully, Khaou allows its implications to unfold naturally and realistically.

Being heavily dialogue-driven, this chamber drama relies greatly on the latitude of its actors, and all conjure a range of complexity befitting the repose of the film. Whishaw, possibly the most naturally emotive actor of his generation, has an intrinsically poetic sensibility to his expressions and gestures. He has all the fragility and grace of a Chopin nocturne, but his Richard is also imbued with a fiercely optimistic reserve that contests against Junn’s imperturbability. For her part, Cheng retains a placid, nearly indifferent facade for much of the film, but under which lies a great expressivity that is allowed to emerge in the quiet moments. It is another attestation to the actors’ and director’s understanding of cultural nuance, making it utterly believable to the last, as Junn and Richard finally seem to understand each other – not through language, but via a deeply felt connection to another human being.

Amidst Junn’s drab and dated nursing room home stands a pot of blue hydrangeas. The symbolism of the hydrangea has a varied past; one Japanese legend tells the story of how a proud emperor gifted a bouquet of hydrangeas as apology to the family of a girl with whom he was in love. The most recurring interpretation, however, seems poignantly fitting: it can be used to express gratitude for being understood. Lilting shows us that language is merely a tool. True understanding of another human being is through empathy and shared experience, and the hesitant thread between Richard and Junn eventually warms into a genuinely compassionate bond because of this. In Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, Tolstoy writes, “Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.” Khaou shows us human emotion and connection without ceremony – questions of cultural, generation, and identity pulsate naturally and rhythmically, avoiding displays of overt emotionality and instead relying on the unaffected simplicity and grace of human experience.

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