“Lilting,” starring Cheng Pei-pei and Ben Whishaw, is a lyrical little chamber piece on language, playing with what words mean, what the body says, what is understood and what is not.
Writer-director Hong Khaou, in his feature directing debut, was inspired, or provoked, by personal experience to make the film. His family, political refugees from Cambodia, relocated to Britain, where he grew up translating for his mother.
The framework of the story is similar. Junn (Cheng) is a Cambodian Chinese woman who fled to Britain years ago with her husband and son Kai (Andrew Leung). When the film picks up the thread, she is already a widow well past middle age.
As the film opens, Kai is visiting his mother at the retirement home in the British countryside where he’s “locked her up” as she puts it. Imperious and demanding on the surface, what you begin to see is a mother who feels locked out of her son’s life.
She is right, though the film will take a while in letting her in on the secret.
In what appears to be a peace offering, Kai invites her to dinner at his flat the following night. An accident intervenes, and the film turns its attention not on the deadly event that is referenced only obliquely but the repercussions of what happens after Kai, her lifeline between languages, is lost.
Hong keeps circling back to that moment between mother and son — their bickering, his invitation, his unease — and what we are beginning to learn is much unfinished business.
It turns out the scene is only a memory, Junn’s final one of her son.
Yet that dreamlike sense stays with the film, underscored by its ethereal look. Director of photography Ula Pontikos’ lens lingers on the pastoral setting surrounding the retirement home, catching each change in season, catching the shifting moods on the faces as well.
Kai’s death doesn’t interest the filmmaker nearly as much as what happens to the survivors.
Richard (Whishaw) is Kai’s longtime boyfriend. He and Junn have a history, not a good one, even though Junn has no idea her son is gay or how important Richard is to him. But that is little more than a way to set up the film’s central dilemma — the power and the impotence of language to communicate — a discussion conducted in Mandarin, English and emotion.
The idea is most artfully expressed in Junn’s innocent flirtation with Alan (Peter Bowles), an older gent living at the retirement home. He brings her flowers every day. They talk about their lives without understanding a word the other says. One of the film’s loveliest moments catches them dancing. Junn is smiling, sharing some memory with Alan. He knows only that she is happy. It is understanding enough.
Cheng has set her legendary martial arts prowess aside to portray the malcontented matriarch. There is certainly the steel you see in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or the many other martial arts movies she is known for. But the vulnerability, when it surfaces, the way she softens in Alan’s arms, shows a more emotional side you hope will get more time on screen.
Junn’s world is shaken again when Richard begins showing up at the retirement home. Despite the divide between them, she represents Kai to him and he, in turn, shoulders the responsibility of her happiness. A translator seems to be the solution, so he hires Vann (Naomi Christie), fluent in English and Mandarin, to become the bridge between Junn and Alan, and by extension him.
Christie is delightful as the woman in the middle, especially when translating seems to require something more than a word-for-word recitation. “You’re taking her side,” Richard snaps at one point.
Understanding the words, as we all well know, doesn’t always improve relationships, and that is Hong’s point. Alan and Junn start as sweethearts, Junn and Richard as adversaries. Both of those positions change, not necessarily in ways you’d expect.
Whishaw’s Richard has been written into something of a corner. He is tremulous, teary and soft. More dimensional when complexity is called for. If only the director had taken better advantage of the actor’s emotional range, which we’ve seen vary from the arrogant security guru Q in “Skyfall” to the fragile poet John Keats in “Bright Star.”
Flashbacks that are meant to fill in a picture of Richard’s life with Kai establishes their playfully sweet connection in bed. But it pulls the film away from its spine and does nothing to explain Richard’s obsession with helping Junn.
Which is ultimately the film’s undoing. Teasing out the vagaries of language, how confusing communication can be, is such a good idea. Despite a strong start, the filmmaker doesn’t exactly know where to go with it. Still, there are moments before things get away from him that are captivating to watch and lovely to listen to, lilting.
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes; English and Mandarin with English subtitles
Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena