J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Lilting: Cheng Pei-pei in the Dramatic Spotlight

Accurate translations are important in summit conferences and business meetings, but the ethics are a bit trickier on the personal level. A first time translator interpreting for an elderly nursing home couple will grapple with questions of how much and faithfully she should relay their words to each other. However, there are even greater unresolved personal issues lingering between the man who hired her and the Cambodian-Chinese woman utilizing her services in Cambodian-born British filmmaker Hong Khaou’s Lilting (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Junn’s time in the nursing home was supposed to be temporary, but her son Kai was tragically killed in a traffic accident before he could arrange a new living situation for her. Unfortunately, she could not have moved in with him, because she never would have accepted his relationship with Richard. After Kai’s death, Richard tries to look after Junn out of a sense of loyalty, but she begrudges his presence, mistakenly blaming him for her current circumstances.

At least the home brought her together with Alan, a British pensioner who cannot speak any Chinese or Cambodian dialects. Nonetheless, they seem to enjoy each others’ company. Wanting to help facilitate their romance, Richard recruits Vann to translate. It works well for a while, perhaps even softening Junn’s attitude towards her late son’s “roommate,” but the mourning mother might be too set in her ways to allow any of her inter-personal relationships to deepen or evolve.

Cheng Pei-pei never flashes her kung-fu moves in Lilting, which is somewhat disappointing, but the Come Drink with Me star’s straight-forward acting chops are impressive enough. It is a restrained but devastating portrayal of grief and resentment. Never sugarcoated, Cheng’s performance shuns sentimentality and theatrics, quietly going to some very deep and dark places.

While many will also focus on James Bond franchise alumnus Ben Whishaw’s co-starring turn, the film’s real discovery is Naomie Christie. Her acutely perceptive work as Vann in many ways functions as the viewer’s entry point. She is even more of an outsider to the proceedings than Richard, yet she too finds herself forming judgments and allowing herself to become emotionally involved.

Lilting represents quite an accomplished feature directorial debut from Hong, who masterfully maintains a mood of exquisite sorrow, nicely abetted by the sensitive, Sundance award-winning cinematography of Ula Pontikos. It is a graceful film with understanding for all and malice towards none. Recommended for Cheng’s fans who wish to see the icon in a whole new light, Lilting opens this Friday (9/26) in New York at the Village East.

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