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13 August 2014

Lost in Translation

My cinema attendance this year has been pretty poor, and I've had to do a fair bit of catching up on missed movies on plane rides. This means missing out on trailers, however. At this time of year, there aren't usually too many good movies coming out, but the Curzon did have quite a good trailer selection the last time I went, and it was there that I found out about Hong Khaou's new film Lilting. I was pleased to discover that I could watch the movie on Curzon Home Cinema for the princely sum of £10 — it would have been cheaper to go to an earlybird screening at the cinema, although less convenient, of course. With hindsight, I think I would probably have enjoyed the film more on a big screen — somehow, its elegant simplicity and unapologetic bluntness was wasted on my television.

As the film opens, we see an elderly Chinese-Cambodian woman, Junn (Pei-pei Cheng), sitting on the bed of what turns out to be an old people's home, talking to her adult son Kai (Andrew Leung). We soon learn that Kai died recently and Junn is struggling to come to terms with his death, especially after he had 'betrayed' her by forcing her to live in the care home because there was no room in the flat he shared with his friend Richard (Ben Whishaw).

Richard, it turns out, was more than a friend to Kai — they were a couple for several years, and it was a constant bone of contention between them that Kai couldn't quite bring himself to come out to his lonely, widowed mother. Richard is grieving too and he wants to try to help Junn in some way, but because although she speaks six languages, she knows almost no English, he hires a translator, Vann (Naomi Christie), to help out. Even so, the relationship between Richard and Junn remains highly strained; the latter is distrustful of the man who occupied so much of her son's time and attention. Vann tries to help, but sometimes only makes things worse. Vann also translates Junn's conversations with Alan (Peter Bowles), another resident at the home with whom she has become friendly. This leads to one of the most awkward film scenes I've seen all year with Richard cooking Chinese food for Vann to serve for Junn and Alan as a romantic dinner for two (plus one translator and one chef).

The performances in Lilting are really strong, with Whishaw standing out as the young man who has lost the love of his life and, faced with a crippling loneliness, is desperate to forge a connection with the only other person who cared about Kai as much as he did. Isolation is a central theme in the film. Junn has lived in the UK for decades but only knows a few words of English, and it is her need to cling to the past that heightens her sense of solitude and desolation. Richard, meanwhile, has had to hide his relationship with Kai — at least from Kai's mother — which is, in itself isolating.

But not much happens in the film. As it progresses, we do learn a little more about the characters and their pasts, but not much, and even though it only clocked in 85 minutes, I found my attention waning after the one-hour mark. The awkwardness contributed to this, I think; some scenes were quite hard to watch — intentionally so, I'm sure. The film doesn't really offer up much in the way of resolution, which is fine in itself, but although the characters are sympathetic and finely drawn, I just couldn't find myself caring about them enough to wonder about their future. I'm glad that I watched Lilting and I admired it; it just wasn't all that entertaining.

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