The usual question to ask about any film that involves two people who speak different languages is how much gets lost in translation. Lilting, the debut feature of Cambodian-born, UK-based director Hong Khaou, seems to suggest something quite different: what gets lost in translation is not as important as what can be communicated when translation is dispensed with altogether.
Lilting follows Richard (Ben Whishaw), as he tries to build a relationship with the mother of his late partner, Kai (Andrew Leung). Junn (Cheng Pei Pei), is quite a linguist, speaking 6 languages, but unfortunately none of them are English, despite the fact that she has lived in UK for some decades. Shortly before his death, Kai had dumped his mother in a retirement home, the cause of not inconsiderable tension. She wanted to live with him. He also wanted to live with her, but hadn’t yet managed to tell her that his flatmate, Richard, was really his partner, a situation made more problematic by the fact that Junn didn’t like Richard to start with.
After Kai’s death, the cause of which is unnecessarily withheld from the audience until the end, Richard tries to bond with Junn, partly as a way of holding on to Kai, and also because he feels a sense of responsibility to this now very much alone woman. He hires a translator, Vann (Naomi Christie) to help them communicate. His professed reason, however, is to allow Junn to communicate with her new English boyfriend, Alan (Peter Bowles). This strikes as a rather strange thing to do, and although no doubt Richard has good intentions, proves to be the cause of great discord between Alan and Junn: it turns out that when they can actually speak to each other, they don’t like each other much.
Richard and Junn’s relationship moves haltingly forward, but the breakthroughs tend to come not from communication, but through the use of other senses. When Junn comes to see Kai’s old bedroom, they both gain some satisfaction from the fact that they can still smell Kai. Similarly, Kai warms to Richard’s Chinese cooking and his use of chopsticks when cooking bacon. Vann’s translation, more than anything, just seems to get in the way. Their most productive conversation, when Richard tells Junn that Kai was gay and both of them express their grief is done almost entirely without Vann’s translation. Enough could be communicated, it seems, through tone, through gesture, through sheer emotion, to render the actual words irrelevant. Sometimes, it appears, communication happens best when words are least understood.
Whishaw’s performance as the grieving partner is superb. Richard is achingly vulnerable, distraught, but searching for a way to find meaning as he moves forward with his life. Cheng is similarly strong, as the stubborn mother who you guess knows long before that Richard was more than her son’s ‘very best friend’ (zuihao pengyou). Not everything she says, however, is translated, either by Vann or with subtitles, and you feel that this makes her harder to relate to for non-Mandarin speaking audiences. Naomi Christie’s Vann is likeable but frustrating, with her tendency to add in to translations what they thinks each side ought to have said, rather than what they did say. Peter Bowles is amusingly dry as a man searching for a little late-in-life love, who listens to Junn’s Mandarin laments, and replies in English with great descriptions of his sexual prowess (or perhaps what it was when he was a little younger).
London is the perfect set for the film: not the tourist’s London of Leicester square, or the banker’s London of skyscrapers, but the London of run-down streets and little cafs. The London that is not the all-engaging centre of the world, but rather often the site of great loneliness and isolation.
The film’s real downfall is that it is based around a hook that is just not convincing: Richard’s desire to provide a translator for Alan and Junn. The film’s formal innovation, in which the story is filled in with flashbacks to conversations between Kai and Richard, and Kai and Junn in the days before his death is, however, effective. Overall, Lilting is beautiful and affecting film, and having been made with a budget of only £120,000, is another great offering from Film London and BBC Films’ Microwave scheme for low-budget independent cinema.