Home Video Hovel: Lilting, by Aaron Pinkston
Language is an incredibly powerful thing. When films either take language for granted or choose to ignore its power, it is very frustrating to me. I can usually forgive films that substitute native tongues for bland, generic British accents, but when characters that should have a language barrier do not, it never goes unnoticed. Hong Khaou’s Lilting plays right into my personal pet peeve in wonderfully complex ways.
The film follows the tragic death of a young Cambodian Englishman through the two people who loved him – his aging mother (Pei-pei Cheng), now living in an assisted home, and his long-term boyfriend (Ben Whishaw). Though Junn and Richard share this common bond, they don’t have anything else in common, the ability to speak the same language probably the most important of their differences. As a way to get closer to his would-be mother-in-law, Richard enlists a young woman to act as a translator. This act creates the narrative device that makes Lilting work. The majority of the film is set between Junn’s newfound dialogue with Richard and a gentleman cohabitant that she has been spending time with. Throughout the film, the two relationships offer a nice counterbalance on how language can affect relationships, sometimes bringing people together, sometimes dividing them.
Junn and her new beau Alan’s first interaction, even though they have spent plenty of time together in a romantic context, is awkward. It is almost as if language muddies up their chemistry. At first they aren’t even quite sure what to say to each other, never needing to rely on words before. Later on, they seem to become embarrassed by their ability to communicate through words, eventually leading to disagreements, name-calling and exaggerations that may not have happened without the intermediary translator. Lilting isn’t saying that language only has adverse effects on a relationship (Junn and Richard clearly counter this thought), but their relationship is a fun, if a bit heartbreaking, little game of progression at the heart of the film.
The film creates barriers between the characters not only through language but also with their complex relationships. Richard desperately wants to connect with Junn as a way to reconnect with his dead lover, ultimately hoping that the translation can do this. The ability to communicate only solidifies the wall between them, however, by emphasizing how little they know about each other and how little they’ve been able to deal with their loss. Needing to communicate through a surrogate only builds frustration – it isn’t very easy to have an argument with someone you are addressing but aren’t directly speaking with. Richard also needs to keep the relationship with Junn’s son at an arm’s length, as she is naive to it – at least he thinks she is. The ways he represents himself and his relationship becomes a similarly important form of language throughout.
One other interesting angle Lilting has with language is when characters often say something that they don’t really want translated. They say it, perhaps because they realize it won’t be understood, even if it really is their true thoughts. What one wants to be understood versus what is the truth is an interesting aspect of language that can only be so simply realized with this element of the narrative. The film’s final moments, the culmination of Richard and Junn’s dramatic differences, actually has the characters speaking to one another without translation. They can’t know what they are saying, but it is perhaps the first time in the entire film that they really understand each other.
The presence of a translator throughout heavy dialogue scenes also highlights the reason why screenwriters and filmmakers take shortcuts with language. Obviously, the film is padded out with most of its dialogue effectively said twice. Worse, technically and structurally, the device isn’t very cinematic. Ultimately, though, the particular characteristics of Lilting are enough to overrun the inherent downside.
On its face, Lilting doesn’t have an extraordinarily compelling dramatic arc, certainly not one that is unique or complicated. The way it is told, however, sets the film apart. It stretches as far as it can take its conceit, but hits a number of satisfying spots. Opening up questions on how we can relate to each other when we really can’t relate to each other creates a pretty powerful story in the end.