Review: Ben Whishaw brings emotion to uneven 'Lilting'
PARK CITY - In theory, casting a top-tier actor in your independent film is a godsend. They should elevate the material and help mask any flaws that a small budget or a shortened shooting schedule might cause. Unfortunately, that isn't always the case. Often, said actor may seem out of place among the film's other talent or another aspect of the film is so weak — say, screenwriting or production design — that the film still fails overall. The latter, among other problems, is the issue with Ben Whishaw's casting in Hong Khaou's directorial debut "Lilting," which was one of four films to open the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Thursday night.
Set in modern day London, the drama focuses on Junn (Pei-pei Cheng), a 60-something Chinese immigrant who now, disgruntled, finds herself housed in a senior living facility. Her son Kai (Andrew Leung) has recently passed away under mysterious circumstances, leaving her without any living relatives in England. Kai's longtime companion, Richard (Whishaw), feels it's his duty to help Junn in any way he can. Even though she seemingly doesn't want it.
Because Junn has refused to assimilate into a country she's lived in for decades she still does not speak English. Richard decides to hire a part-time translator, Vann (Naomi Christie), to try and forge a connection with his de facto mother-in-law. It also benefits Junn by allowing her to communicate with her new facility boyfriend Alan (Peter Bowles). who is pretty much the movie's comic relief.
The dramatic tension Khaou is attempting to create is two-fold. First, Junn dislikes Richard immensely because she blames him for keeping Kai from spending time with her. Will she forgive him? Second, Junn seemingly has no idea that Richard and Kai were lovers (or purposely doesn't want to admit it). Early on we learn Kai felt tremendously guilty over being gay and even in his early 30s could not communicate this to her. Unfortunately, Khaou's screenplay is too monotonous and repetitive to make these conflicts compelling. Where Khaou succeeds is when he leaves the traditional narrative structure of his script and experiments with different cinematic techniques to draw the viewer in. These are the film's true emotional moments and you can just feel the picture wanting to take a more intriguing turn before it slams back to earth with a thud when the "traditional story" comes in. Significant credit for these sequences has to go to relatively unknown composer Stuart Earl, whose pretty score wants to take the film to a different level.
But, back to Whishaw. As noted above, he often seems out of place among the rest of the cast and it's not his notoriety that's the problem. Whishaw's charismatic talent seems to blow all the other actors in the picture off the screen. That's clearly not Whishaw's intent. He's actually doing everything he can to create a three-dimensional character and is often near tears trying to hold back how devastated Richard is over Kai's death. His flashback scenes with Leung are watchable until you realize Khaou doesn't have strong enough material to truly make them intriguing.
Cheng, an iconic Hong Kong action star, has some fine moments, but you wish she'd been given a tad more to work with. Junn's loneliness is touched on here and there and her love of her son is clearly what haunts her the most. Well, Cheng can make that work with her eyes closed. The problem is the audience never really understands whether she knew the truth about her son or just wanted to pretend he was still looking for the perfect girl. Khaou has every right to make this ambiguous. How he goes about it just does a disservice to Cheng's talents.
Criticisms aside, Khaou's point of view does shine a light on contrasting cultural communities in the U.K. and those differences will speak to many North American and Asian viewers as well. The 33-year-old director obviously has a voice and admirably wants to bring unsung stories to the screen. In the future, however, he may be better served by collaborating with another screenwriter on the actual story itself.
A World Dramatic Competition entry, it's unlikely "Lilting" will find major theatrical distribution in the United States. It should have much more of an impact in ancillary streams in the U.K.