Transcending Demographics: Lilting

09/24/2014 4:00 AM |

Directed by Hong Khaou

Lilting belongs to what might be called the transcending-demographics genre, that high-minded cousin of the buddy picture in which two strenuously dissimilar characters overcome misunderstanding and like obstacles to forge an improbable emotional bond. The odd couple here is Richard (Ben Whishaw)—young/British/gay—and Junn (longtime wuxia vet Pei-pei Cheng)—elderly/Cambodian-Chinese/immigrant. Their common ground is grief—over Kai (Andrew Leung), her son and his long-term boyfriend, recently killed by a careless motorist.

Before they can properly console one another, however, there’s eighty-odd minutes of screentime to burn through. Junn knows Richard only as the roommate and “best friend” who monopolized her son’s attention and exiled her to the nursing home she can’t abide; Richard is torn between the admirable instinct to treat Junn as his own family and the fear that she will not want to hear the truth about her son. With no solution handy, he tries a red herring, hiring a young woman (Naomi Christie) to interpret between Junn, who speaks little English, and the fellow nursing-home resident (Peter Bowles) with whom she canoodles daily.

Director Hong Khaou, making his feature debut following a pair of festival-circuit shorts, is too circumspect to exploit this material for either melodrama or self-reflexive farce, delivering an airless chamber piece instead. Lilting took the prize for cinematography at this year’s Sundance Festival, but its images are studied and postcard-pretty, too neat and tidy to carry much emotional charge. In fact, for such a resolutely intimate work, the film wants badly for the unruliness of the everyday: from the evidence on-screen it’s hard to even say whether Richard has a job or a social circle of his own, and the emotional pitch is NPR-flat. Whishaw and Cheng both acquit themselves honorably, but so thinly imagined is the world around them that despite their best efforts, these characters seem to occupy a sterile vacuum.

Even the movie’s title signals Khaou’s eat-your-vegetables approach, conspicuously avoiding anything that could be called an enticement. Averse to spectacle but dependent on contrivance, he is just one more liberal indie humanist hung up on naturalism and good intentions.

Opens September 26 at the Village East