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'Lilting' Traces A Mother's Grief, In Imperfect Language

An air of delicacy hovers over Lilting, but don't be fooled. Ungovernable gusts of longing, grief and anger leak from this muted British chamber piece about two hitherto unconnected Londoners struggling with the loss of the young man they both loved. Fur will fly, quietly but with force — and not particularly because the lady in the lead is played by Asian martial arts legend Cheng Pei-pei (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

Cheng is a still, outwardly calm presence as Junn, a Cambodian-Chinese immigrant in her 60s mourning the recent loss of her son Kai (Andrew Leung). We meet her complaining to Kai that she hates the comfortable assisted living facility where, she believes, he dumped her. Their exchange and others will replay at slightly different angles, filtered through painful or cherished memories, sorrow and longing.

Just about everyone in Lilting is an earnestly unreliable narrator, including Kai's live-in lover, Richard, soulfully underplayed by Ben Whishaw, a lucky catch for first-time feature writer-director Hong Khaou. Uninvited and more than a little unhinged, Richard keeps showing up with gifts to win over a hostile Junn and talk her into moving in with him. His overtures go over poorly, especially when he hires a translator named Vann (Naomi Christie), allegedly to help Junn further a flirtation with Alan (Peter Bowles), a cranky fellow resident who speaks not a word of Chinese. After years in England, Junn, a widow, speaks no English and makes no effort to acclimate to a society she still considers alien. What Richard fails to notice is that Junn and Alan do just fine until he tries to make them understand one another.

In another kind of movie, the kind that packed prime-time television lineups in the 1970s and '80s, improved communication would work its therapeutic magic; the combatants would embrace and move forward with their lives. In Lilting, talk is lost in translation, blackly comic, or downright toxic, especially when the well-meaning Vann gets creative with her interpretations.

If that saves Lilting from the mawkishness that often plagues dramatizations of grief, it also underscores Khaou's mistrust of verbal language. For much of the movie, the spoken word irons out idiosyncrasy, obscures some truths worth telling, and blurts out others best kept under wraps. Far more telling is the writer-director's use of space and time to create a dance of approach and avoidance that takes the emotional temperature beneath what's said.

It's only when Richard start to give away gifts that matter (those that cost him something, and that Junn really wants), and when he and Junn quit trying to control one another, that a kind of loosening frees them both to express their anguish and achieve not closure, but perhaps a kind of motivating peace. Pay close attention, and you might also measure their progress in the scenically bleak treetops of an icy winter or a quick shot of a gasworks on a walk by the Thames. Is that a breakthrough we feel when spring comes, or just some green treetops gently swaying in a warm breeze?

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Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.