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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 17 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 42
Intriguing Lilting an unrealized character study
Arts & Entertainment
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Intriguing Lilting an unrealized character study

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

LILTING
VARSITY THEATRE
October 17-23


Cambodian-Chinese immigrant Junn (Cheng Pei Pei) is in London to be with her beloved son Kai (Andrew Leung). When he dies with crippling suddenness, the still vibrant woman, having never learned English or attempted to assimilate in any way, literally finds herself a stranger in a strange land - a land she has been living in, but never truly thought of as home. Making things stranger is the appearance of Richard (Ben Whishaw), a young Londoner who for some reason seems intent on worming his way into her life for reasons she can't begin to comprehend.

To facilitate communication, interpreter Vann (Naomi Christie) makes an entrance, valiantly trying to help Junn understand why Richard is so adamant to become a part of her life. She also, somewhat inadvertently, aids a burgeoning romance between the grieving mother and her assisted living facility's resident lothario Alan (Peter Bowles). Her attempts at spelling out what is going on and why more often than not end up resulting in more, not less, confusion. In the end it is what is unsaid, what remains unspoken, that ultimately allows Junn and Richard to bond and for both to realize just how important Kai was to the both of them.

Lilting. Oh, Lilting. How I wish I liked you more than I actually do. Featuring a nicely modulated script, constructed with delicately refined grace, writer/director Hong Khaou certainly does nothing to embarrass himself with his feature length debut. His characters ooze authenticity, the relationship between Junn and Richard touching and affective, rarely reaching for melodramatic treacle in order to sell any of its core ideas. In all the ways that matter, it's a very good movie, sometimes more than that, and as such it's a difficult one for me to fault even when aspects don't quite come together as nicely as I hoped they would.

And yet, Lilting didn't do it for me. For whatever reason the balance between the comedic and dramatic aspects left me unmoved, and as great as both Pei Pei and Whishaw are - and they are both terrific - the balance between their evolving relationship and how they interact with others in the wake of Kai's death left me cold. At certain points it all felt like some nicely shot, expertly scored and intimately designed Wong Kar Wai wannabe, an In the Mood for Love variation, but without that film's grace, potency or poignant emotional oblivion.

I think my main issue is that it seemed like I could always see the mechanics of the movie too clearly, that I always knew where it had to go, even if Khaou was going out of his way to keep things close to the vest and somewhat nondescript. It was like it was trying too hard to win me over, which is odd considering my statements in regards to the picture's subtlety and restraint, and yet that feeling frustratingly remains nonetheless.

Yet there are moments, little bits of whimsical, almost off-hand interpersonal give and take, where the film comes alive in aspects that are striking, leaving me almost in awe and wanting to experience more. The ways in which Junn and Richard learn to communicate, as well as come to grips with the fact the former knew nothing of the relationship her son had with the latter, is sublime, the inherent emotionalism of the piece warmly sweeping me up inside its tender embrace with loving frequency.

Problem is, I wanted more. I wanted to live inside both Junn and Richard's worlds more fully, more completely than I felt like I was getting the opportunity to. In reaching for restraint, by going out of his way to not overplay his hand, Khaou inadvertently put me at arm's length from his characters and his story more often than I felt happy with. The great stuff is so amazing, so wondrous, that I wanted far more of it than the movie sadly had to offer, leaving an odd, somewhat frustrated aftertaste in my mouth I was never able to shake.

Lilting is worthwhile, and I can only assume most are going to respond to it with far more passion and positivity than I sadly did. But for me Khaou's movie feels unrealized, half-baked, ultimately having an unfinished quality to its central dramatics that made me uncomfortable. To that end I can't help but look at it as nothing more than an intriguing debut, nothing more, never entirely living up to the promise continually hinted at as Junn and Richard's stories gradually move towards culmination.

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