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Interview: Director Hong Khaou on "Lilting"

Director Hong Khaou on the set of "Lilting"

Jose here. Director Hong Khaou’s touching drama Lilting centers on the ways in which we deal with grief, filtered through two characters who are in pain over the loss of the same person but who can’t share this pain, because they don’t speak the same language. The death of Kai (Andrew Leung) leaves his Cambodian-Chinese mother Junn (Cheng Pei-pei) completely devastated, but little does she know that Kai’s boyfriend Richard (Ben Whishaw) is going through the same. As he tries to fulfill the protecting-role Kai would expect of him, he finds Junn to be reluctant to his attention.

Tenderly directed by Khaou, who with this makes his feature length directorial debut, Lilting is a quiet, yet poignant, chamber piece anchored by the subdued, beautiful performances of Cheng and Whishaw. Exploring themes of cultural shock, intolerance and rediscovering life’s worth, the film is one of the most unique portraits of love to be put on the screen this year. I spoke to director Khaou, who eloquently elaborated on the film’s origins, the process of making his first film and how his own upbringing shaped this project.

How did you decide that this would be your first feature film? Did you conceive it as a short originally?

No, it was never a short film, it was written as a play ten years ago but it never got staged, had  a few readings at a festival for new writers. There was this scheme that came up through an organization called Film London which is for filmmakers to make their first film on a micro-budget, on 100 thousand pounds basically. I was going through my head and this was one of the ideas I thought was achievable with such a small budget.

More after the jump...

Now that you mention it was a play, you sort of kept the theatrical setting for the film adaptation. There are very few sets, no complicated camera moves...was this how you envisioned it or did it have more to do with the budgetary restrictions?

It was a bit of both. I was very aware that the story had to exist in a cinematic way, so that the way we move between the past and present can work and the camera facilitates both timelines coexisting. It’s a dialogue heavy film, because it’s about communication and language, but you’re right, the monologue for example which I really liked - I have a thing for monologues - and I like using theatrical devices.

You have mentioned that you used John Sayles as inspiration for the flashbacks, but more than him the film made me think of classic Hollywood melodramas like Rebecca and Letter from an Unknown Woman where you have “ghosts” haunting the characters’ lives. Were you influenced by that type of film?

It’s interesting, because even if we have no ghost in our film, I have a thing for movies from that period, but I made the conscious decision not to have Kai appear as a ghost, it was much more of a memory or an imagining. One of the things I really wanted was for Kai to permeate the film, when he wasn’t there for you to miss him. I wanted grief to be predominant without being too heavy handed.

Were you worried that people would get distracted by the fact that we learn how Kai died until the end?

I did think of that but to me it wasn’t important to know how he died, what was driving the story forward was the story of these two people from different cultures and generations and how they both loved the same man and yet are unable to overcome their grief and communicate. The way the story unfolds is for these two people to find a closure, the journey of how we get there was more important to me than to see how Kai died.

You’ve established how the film is about language keeping people apart and creating barriers, but at the same time you highlight the differences between their cultures in a very loving way. We see how beautiful Chinese culture is and it makes us actually embrace the fact that we’re all different. I was wondering if this dichotomy had anything to do with your own upbringing and how you were raised?

That’s a very nice way of putting it. You know there probably is, cause there is a struggle. I’m bilingual and I come from an East Asian culture, yet I’m very Westernized, so these are the struggles I have within, and maybe these conflicts came across in the film. What I was trying to say in a very conscious way, was what you said about the dichotomy of language and communication. On a very basic level we know that language can bring differences and cause conflicts and I wanted to show both sides to that coin, for example in the relationship the mother has with the older gentleman.

You could’ve easily made two movies from this. First we have this very sad drama about a mother coming to terms with her son’s death and then we have this romantic comedy about two elderly people falling in love, which is something we don’t see much of onscreen…

I think the film needed humor because without it people would’ve come out and wanted to kill themselves really. It’s a very sad subject and I needed moments of humor to add light to the situation. When you put two opposing things like these together, one puts a magnifying glass over the other and it makes things more poignant and tender so to speak.

Did you imagine lives for these characters beyond the screenplay?

I wrote biographies for all the characters but I ended them where my film ends.

Does that mean we might see them again then?

(Laughs) I hope not.

I’m not entirely familiar with Cheng Pei-pei's work, other than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where she plays essentially the villain, but she also brings to the table a very maternal quality. She is both very severe and warm. Is this what you saw in her?

I’m glad you picked up on that. Pei-pei is very expressive, when you have these two characters who are grieving in very different ways, it was important to show how Pei-pei’s character grieves in a very expressive way without saying much. I’ve known of her work for a long time, she’s a legend in kung fu films, she’s very expressive and has a physicality that I thought would add a beautiful layer to the character of the mother.

Ben also has a unique quality, where he always feels like he doesn’t belong in modern times, he has a lovely, very romantic look which is why he’s terrific in films like Bright Star, but in your film you ground this etherealness…

That’s really nice of you to say and it’s a great way to describe him. To be honest I never felt that, but now that you’ve said it I can see it. In everything I’ve seen Ben in, I’ve seen truth in the way he acts. I felt really drawn to him, I think he conveys everything with truth and Richard needed this vulnerability and strength.

What do you want people to take away from the film?

Oh...(Laughs) I hope I’ve made them think about language. If I’ve provoked something I’d be really happy.

For more Lilting, here is Nathaniel's review from the Sundance Film Festival and Andrew's Monologue.


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Reader Comments (2)

Saw this film earlier this year at the SD FilmOut LGBT Festival, and I really enjoyed it. Such a beautiful film and I'm glad it got a theatrical release earlier this Fall. Hope more people can discover it!

December 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge P

Hi Guys - As a public service (Ha! Ha!), I'd like to post the following! I have a dealflicks account and I get a 50% discount on my movie tickets and also on my popcorn. Some theatres in the dealflicks network offer as much as 60%. There is a link to dealdlicks (my link) on my website. With high movie prices and abundantly available and reasonably-priced movie downloads, folks are staying away from the movie theatres. But, hey! Don't forget: people STILL love to get out of the house and go to the movies! Cheers! Best, Steve ** ** END **

January 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Downing

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