In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the “Babel fish” is a tiny, yellow organism that performs instantaneous translations when inserted into the ear. This creates unforeseen problems, even wars, because it allows us all to comprehend perfectly what everyone else is saying. Lilting, a chamber piece with a generous reach, grasps that paradox acutely. Richard (Ben Whishaw) is extending a hand across cultural and generational boundaries to Junn (Cheng Pei-pei), the Cambodian-Chinese mother of his late partner, Kai (Andrew Leung). Junn doesn’t speak English. She also didn’t know that Kai was gay. Or rather, she chose to push this indigestible information to the back of her palate. Her contemplative expression grows sharp and vinegary whenever Richard is in the room. He’s like a bad smell.
But Kai, whom we see only in flashbacks or daydreams, was close to his mother and Richard feels a duty to her. Establishing a relationship with Junn is also a way of continuing to nurture his love for Kai. He visits her at her London retirement home, bringing with him Vann (Naomi Christie), a charismatic translator. He has hired Vann for the purpose of getting to know Junn but also to allow the old woman to speak to Alan (Peter Bowles), a fellow retiree to whom she has become close. The foursome falter at first. Richard addresses Junn in the manner of someone projecting to the rear stalls, as if volume alone could flip his speech into Mandarin. Vann’s presence allows him the unusual luxury of apprehending statements mid-air, grabbing the words before they’ve reached the ears of their intended recipient. He asks how old Junn is. No, he tells Vann – don’t ask that after all. Tell her she looks lovely. How was Kew Gardens? Small talk, it turns out, gets smaller still in translation.
Language is vital to Richard. In an argument with Kai, he is accused of always wanting the last word. Now he has it. But the film presents another possibility: that people might know each other more intimately when they can’t understand what the other one is saying. Though she is sitting in the same room, Junn cannot know that Richard says of her son: “He was my life!” Likewise, Richard never gets to hear Junn explain that she felt envious of him because of the emotional claim he had on Kai. The film, however, leaves no doubt that these sentiments are intuited. This is a world where touching and looking can express more than a monologue. Junn makes her first decisive bond with Richard when she visits the home he shared with her son; they can both smell Kai. The olfactory also accounts for the film’s most naggingly beautiful line: Richard dreams of Kai and tells him through gulped sobs, “Smell my armpit again. I miss it when you do that.”
Words tend to be misleading. Dismissed from translation duties during a romantic meal for Junn and Alan (“We can do without”), Vann is perturbed. “How are they going to understand each other now?” she asks. But when she and Richard spy from the kitchen, comically ventriloquising the elderly couple’s conversation for their own amusement, the joke is on them. Richard is putting dirty words in Alan’s mouth. Alan, it transpires, can do fine by himself.
Lilting is the debut of the 38-year-old Cambodian-born writer-director Hong Khaou, who is now based in London. Occasionally his film’s preciousness is stifling. When Kai accuses Richard of being “a dick” and Richard replies smugly, “Well, you love this dick,” it’s impossible to tell whether the innuendo is intentional. The mood is so genteel, the actors don’t appear to know, either.
Visually, Khaou employs a simple but expressive vocabulary. Shots of blank skies do some of the talking. Patient close-ups predominate: hands on arms, hands on shoulders, faces especially. There is electricity in the glances between Richard and Junn. Cheng Pei-pei can strike as much fear into the heart with a disdainful look as she did with poison darts when she played the dastardly villain in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Whishaw, a delicate flower at the best of times, looks with his pale skin and black beard like an inky sketch of himself. Whenever he has to face his co-star’s scorn, the film could be retitled Wilting.