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Lilting (East End Film Festival)

Saturday 21 June 2014, by Matt Bray

Hong Khaou’s study of love and loss opens with shots of 1950s patterned wallpaper and lilting background music, before panning to a vase of freshly cut hydrangea – their blue friendliness blackened by shadow. In this ‘old people’s home’, Junn, the Cambodian – Chinese mother of the tale, has been ‘imprisoned’ by her loving son Kai– “Why did you put me here?” she asks when he visits.

Yet during these visits we witness the love they have for each other. We also feel the pressure that Kai is under to improve Junn’s life and her inability to acknowledge that her son is gay. Kai is ‘in the closet’ to his mother and since he lives with his partner of four years, Richard, it is unclear what he can do to make her happier – could he ‘come out’ and ask her to go and live with them? The scene is playing out gently when Junn turns around to look at Kai, who is on the bed talking, only he’s no longer there. In a shockingly sad twist, delivered early on, we realise that Kai is dead. Junn is searching for solace by replaying their conversations, remembering his physical presence and his touch.

As the film moves back and forward between the past and present, the relationship unfolds before us. Likewise the love affair between Kai and Richard is beautifully played out - kissing, touching, dancing, holding, talking, laughing, fighting. Left alone and heartbroken, Richard reaches out to Junn and begins to visit her. Junn cannot speak English and Richard cannot speak any of the six languages that Junn knows. With the aid of a translator he continues to visit her and shares some of his grief, adopting the accepted role of Kai’s ‘best friend’. Denied the role of ‘widow’, his level of grief remains contained.

The pivotal moment between the two occurs towards the end of the film when they sit at Richard’s kitchen table and, without the aid of the translator, begin to talk. Both are scared, weary and confused, and as they reveal the level of their grief, we observe the power of emotion to transcend language. In a powerful and moving scene, the two people who love Kai the most share their pain.

The tragedy of the film considers not only death, but the sadness of a life denied. For Junn it’s easier to mourn an idealized version of her dead son than it was to love the reality of his lived life. During Kai’s life, Junn was so unable to overcome the fear of knowing the gay son that she dearly loves that she ended up ‘imprisoned’ in an old people’s home. After his death, she is left there, surrounded by angry wallpaper and mournful flowers, fearing the loneliness of Christmas day.


Director: Hong Khaou Running time: 91min Year: 2014

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