Ben Whishaw stars in Lilting as Richard, a deeply sad young man trying to work through grief. He recently lost his lover, Kai (Andrew Leung), unexpectedly and far too early. Kai’s mother, Junn (Pei-Pei Cheng) is also in great pain as a result of the loss. Kai sent her to a nursing home temporarily while he worked up the nerve to come out to her and invite her to live with Richard and himself. Unfortunately, he died before he had the opportunity.
Richard is deeply concerned with his late lover’s mother well-being. He knows that Junn is unhappy in the nursing home and would like to offer her a way out. The problem is that she has no idea how important Richard was in her son’s life. In fact, Junn, thinking that Richard was just a roommate of Kai’s, seems to think that he was a bad influence on her son. Richard doesn’t want to betray Kai by revealing the truth about their relationship. On top of that, he and Junn don’t even speak the same language.
In an effort to get closer to Junn, Richard hires a translator (Naomi Christie) to help them communicate. But as time goes on and Junn becomes increasingly agitated and suspicious of Richard’s motivations, the truth starts simmering to the surface, practically begging to be revealed.
Lilting is a melancholy, but ultimately uplifting tear-jerker filled with likeable characters that help the emotions sink in. The only villain of the piece, the source of the film’s conflict, is Junn and even she’s sympathetic. She’s unreasonably difficult and treats Richard as an irritation even though he’s on a saintly mission to help her, but she’s also grief-stricken and all alone in a strange country where she’s not able to communicate.
Director Hong Khaou has a poetic sensibility and the cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Whishaw. He sells his character’s admirable mix of deep sadness and unyielding altruism so well that it’s practically a guarantee that your heart will break for him. Lilting is a touching meditation on death and grief that never neglects to celebrate life and love simultaneously.