Nursing homes are some of the scariest places on the planet. There are no ghouls in the closets or evil thoughts harboured (save those fostered by their tenants), no, they’re much scarier than all that – they’re the be all and end all of human life. It is the place where people go when they are too fragile, too damaged or too much trouble for their families and friends to cope with, and it is where they will stay until the day they die. It’s a morbid fact, but a genuine one – and as June (Cheng Pei Pei) is dropped off in her own rural British oldies home/metaphorical cul-de-sac in Lilting, she knows it only too well.
Her son, Kai (Andrew Leung) is all too quick to reassure her it’s only temporary, but she knows what’s really happening. Or at least she thinks she does. Kai’s housemate – who she believes is selfishly refusing to grant her board in their home – is in fact his lover, but he’s never found the right time to tell her. And he never will, within ten minutes of the film’s opening he’s hit by a bus – and that’s that. And so June – a Chinese immigrant with no knowledge of the English language, and no family or friends to turn to – is left, alone, to live out the rest of her days in a small cluster of rooms and a garden. As I said, you don’t get much scarier than a nursing home.
The housemate, Richard (Ben Whishaw), tries to connect with her, but there’s only so much you can accomplish when two people have no common linguistic grounds and one half of the conversation blames the other for their son’s death. It goes on from there, but this isn’t a film that is pushed and shoved by plot, it’s a film about two people, completely alien to one another, finding some kind of common ground.
But it’s the story of one alien in particular. While Whishaw – one of the great up and coming British actors of his generation – is utterly wonderful, it’s June where the film really hits home. It’s a story so often told these days – a mother and father upping sticks in the hopes of finding pastures greener for their children. These children will grow up in this new world, and they will learn to live in this new world, but their parents – particularly their mothers, so often resigned to total domesticity – will never truly adjust.
June is not only faced with the death of her son, but the loss of the last connection she had with the world around her. Hong Khaou (the director, himself a second generation Chinese immigrant) throws her into rooms with the kind of oppressive wallpaper that makes your eyes hurt, and surrounds her with people with whom she can barely communicate – the environment couldn’t be more alien if they covered it with Moon rocks.
But this isn’t a film mired in the drudgery of geo-politics, it’s a touching look at love, loss and the ever-presence of nostalgic memory. There are multiple flashback scenes with Kai that then blend into the present day – his memory enduring in the people and places he touched long after he’s gone. And it’s that refusal to let go of the past that unites June and Richard in the end – they’re just two quiet, dignified and battered people trying to look back while the world urges them to turn forward.
It’s delicate and very quiet indeed: these are characters pushed to great degrees of emotional frailty, yet Khaou doesn’t feel the need for countless dramatic set-pieces. Most of the conversations between Richard and June (via an ever-tolerant translator) are dignified affairs, meaning the few instances of genuinely raised voices hit like a hurricane. The subject matter is powerful, and the performances are wonderful – in a world of big and showy dramatism, Lilting gets its point across without feeling the need to shout about it.
I’ve seen Lilting three times now. I caught it twice (once deliberately and once by complete accident) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and then ended up watching it all over again the other night. It’s strange, as Lilting isn’t the kind of movie I’d see myself going back to – it’s well-played, rather lovely, but overall relatively unremarkable. There’s something about it though, this kind of quiet but raw emotional connection that leaves me feeling drained without having to throw it in my face. It’s not bold, it’s not revolutionary, but I kind of love it nonetheless.
Touchingly performed, and written with dignity and grace, Lilting quietly reflects on the universality of love, loss and memory.