NewFest: ‘Lilting’ Director Hong Khaou on Grief, Communication, and the Queer Experience

Hong Khaou's directorial debut made its world premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival, taking home the Cinematography Award: World Cinema Dramatic. Khaou, whose previous short films have screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and Sundance, discussed the production of his first feature, adapting his idea for the screen, and universal themes explored in Lilting, which makes its New York City premiere as part of the 26th NewFest, New York's LGBT Film Festival at the Film Society through July 29.

The sudden death of Kai, a young London man, leaves his Chinese Cambodian mother Junn (Pei-pei Cheng) and his boyfriend Richard (Ben Whishaw) profoundly grieving. Feeling a strong sense of responsibility for Kai’s only family member, Richard reaches out to her. Though Junn speaks little English, her dislike of Richard is plain, and she responds with stony resistance. Since they share no common language, Richard hires a translator to facilitate communication, and the two improbable relatives attempt to reach across a chasm of misunderstanding through their memories of Kai. Writer/director Hong Khaou’s moving and intimate debut dances between the real and imaginary to express the unspeakable loss that both characters experience. Boasting delicate performances by both Whishaw and Cheng, this Sundance award-winner is a perceptive meditation on the connection between two human souls, revealing that what separates us can also bind us together.

Hong Khaou | UK | 2013 | 86m

Responses by Hong Khaou:

On the origins of the film...

This was originally a play I wrote a while back, but never got staged. The opportunity came for me to adapt it into a film. I guess you could say the idea came from home, I'm an immigrant and bilingual. I arrived in the UK very young and was able to assimilate. It wasn't so easy for my parents. I imagined how my mother will cope under certain circumstances. What will happen if her lifeline was gone, so to speak. The film is not at all autobiographical, but the themes explored are deeply personal.

On themes explored...

Whilst I think that Lilting covers very universal themes of grief and communication, it does however speak to a uniquely queer experience. Any gay person who has feared that if their partner dies, they may not be fully recognized by the partner's family must understand the struggle between Richard and Junn. Not only in coming to terms with the death of Kai but the fallout from his inability to be open about his sexuality.

On the production of his first feature...

Shooting in two languages was very difficult. The character of Vann, the translator, and having her repeating what was said was a concern in the back of my head. To keep that momentum going and not loose the nuances of language and miscommunication. It's odd to think about this now, the film looks contained and intimate, but it was far from that. In my head it was chaos. Mainly because it was my first feature and the pressure I put on myself. The constraints of a low budget also added to that; the punishing shoot schedule and under difficult circumstances. Another thing was to make sure there was a sense of lilting throughout the film, and know that those moment can work in the edit. Or else the film title would have to change.

On film influences...

Presque iien (Come Undone) by Sébastien Lifshitz was a big moment for me in term of seeing a queer films that suited my filmmaking sensibility. I also loved Before I Forget by Jacques Nolot, that was an astounding film. I'm not sure if they've influence Lilting directly, not consciously. The three films I was thinking of a lot when writing and researching Lilting were Rouge by Stanley Kwan, Lone Star by John Sayles, and Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin.

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