Hong Khaou spent seven years at an independent film distribution company, managing their Home Entertainment department and was also part of their acquisition team. He has written and directed two short films: “Summer” and “Spring.” “Summer” (2006) premiered at the Berlinale Film Festival, and “Spring” (2011) at the Sundance Film Festival. It was also screened at the Berlinale Film Festival.
Lilting (2014), his feature film debut, premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2014 in the World Dramatic Competition, where Urzula Pontikos won the Cinematography Award (World Cinema – Dramatic) and the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize (World Cinema – Dramatic). The film tells the story of Richard (Ben Whishaw), whose Cambodian Chinese lover Kai (Andrew Leung) has died in an accident, and who attempts to connect with Kai’s mother Junn (Pei Pei). Richard tries to overcome the language and cultural barriers that separate him from Junn and to piece together memories of the man that they both love.
It was an idea I had been carrying with me for some time. It was an opportunity to turn it into a film.
How did this film begin?
The story began life as a play. It had a few readings but was never staged. There was a scheme called Microwave run by Film London for emerging filmmakers. I adapted it into a film.
Are there any autobiographical elements to this film?
The film is not autobiographical, but it is very personal. The themes explored are very close to me.
Tell us about filming in London.
Filming in London is very expensive. The size of the budget didn’t reflect that. I remember going into many cafes in east London personally to explain the film and the nature of the project. It needed a personal approach. Besides the shelter accommodation, the only reason we could get all the locations was because the owners like the sound of the film and my plea for help.
There was also the bloody planes. We always seem to be under a flight path, if not it would be traffic or sirens. There was constant noise pollution. I love filming in London!
You productively manipulate the setting to create the characters’ worlds: the economy of Richard’s (Ben Whishaw) and Kai’s (Andrew Leung) flat helps to replicate the intimacy that they have shared, just as Junn’s (Cheng Pei Pei) room, with its floral wallpaper, suggests that her world is hermetically sealed. Tell us about some your decisions.
The idea of decorating the homes to look like the past is factual. They exist. It was a theory developed by an American professor. I remember seeing a documentary and it gave me the idea to use it in Lilting. It worked on so many levels, fitting into the themes of past and present, Junn being trapped within the interior space, her inability to assimilate, the inter-generational gap etc. It echoed beautifully, I felt.
I wanted Junn’s place to be sealed, so to speak, and then we juxtaposed that with shots of the outside. It’s to give the sense that she is confined to the home and to the past. I wanted a strong contrast between the sheltered accommodation and Richard and Kai’s apartment. It needed to feel like a breath of fresh air when we leave the claustrophobia of Junn’s richly decorated home.
Cheng Pei Pei is a martial arts legend, probably best known to Western audiences for her work in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Tell us about casting Ben Whishaw and Pei Pei as the leads, and working with a small cast of six.
The film is entirely performance-led: it was always going to need good actors.
Junn’s world is very passive until Richard arrives. If you’re not from that culture it’s also very much a foreign world. It’s Richard who leads you in: he connects everyone’s emotions. He carries so much pain on his shoulders, and I wanted an actor who has the strength and vulnerability. What can I say that hasn’t been said about Ben? He’s insanely gifted, and a very intelligent person.
Pei Pei is a bit of a legend. I’ve known her since I was a child seeing those Run Run Shaw’s Kung-Fu films. My mother went nuts when she heard Pei Pei was in my film.
To this day I don’t know how we manage to cast Ben and Pei Pei. It’s one those wish lists I would quietly tell friends.
Richard’s and Kai’s relationship seems both real and longstanding: they are, by turns, teasing, flirtatious, and serious. How did you convey that on camera?
They have three scenes together, that’s very little screen time to convey the strength of their relationship. It’s a testament to both Ben and Andy, how beautifully they portrayed those feelings.
I wanted a sense of Kai to reverberate throughout the film. When he’s not there, you should sort of miss him like Junn and Rich misses him. A way to do that is to blur the timelines, and make it seamless, because memory is like that, particularly memory dealing with grief. Everything was done in camera – the seamlessness, moving between present and past. It was all editing and camera.
Communication is an important theme in Lilting. Junn falls in love with Alan (Peter Bowles) a fellow resident at her home. Why introduce this subplot?
I wanted to show the flip side to communication. We know that it bridges differences and bring about understanding, but it also can highlights differences so strong that you have conflicts arising out of it. I wanted to show both sides of the coin. It felt right for Junn and Alan to break up. And through communication Junn and Richard find a sense of clarity. Alan also brings the humour, he allows us to breath.
Richard brings in Vann (Naomi Christie) as a translator in hopes to help Junn and Alan better understand each other, and Vann becomes something more than just a translator. To what extent is the film’s preoccupation with the challenges in communication between languages and age groups universal?
The film is very much about the challenges of communication and language – inter-generational and inter cultural. What it’s like to live in a western country where the children have assimilated but the parents haven’t managed.
The scene with the bacon was when I first removed any translation from Vann – as a way to connect Richard’s and Junn’s grief. That was the beginning of suggesting that certain profound emotions are universal. In the end scene, I felt I have permission to remove Vann entirely. They were able to open up their inner feelings, knowing that the other person might not entirely understand. At that point, they really needed to let it all pour out, I felt.
I like to leave that to the audience’s imagination.
If only I make these smart decisions at the right time in my life, I would be so happy now… or not. Hindsight is great for that.
Of course, verbal communication is only one kind that the film explores: smells are important as a way of connecting both Richard and Junn to Kai and, in fact, the film repeatedly returns to Kai smelling the hydrangea given to Junn. How did you try to create a sense of smell with the camera?
Smell is such an important component to memory. I wanted something very personal and subtle to help connect everyone. I’m not sure I created a sense of smell with the camera: it was more to do with repeating the motif of smell in pivotal moments, so that it lingers in the mind. What I wanted to do with the camera was create a sense of grief to permeate the film – so that the memory of Kai lingers on. That deep sense of grief we can get into when someone very dear passes away.
The scene in which Richard gives Junn her son’s ashes is one of quiet desperation – as much for Richard as it is for us. When, in your view, did Junn discover the nature of Richard’s and Kai’s relationship?
I wanted to leave that ambiguous, leave it to you to decide that. I discuss this with Pei Pei, and she felt the mother always knows. She just doesn’t want to confront it and to open that can of worms. The unspoken thing and not knowing how to approach the subject and so we dance around it so to speak.
Is Junn, as he thinks, purposefully hurting Richard?
She is very jealous of Richard. We do certain things as a way of coping. I don’t think Junn is a malicious person: it’s in the heat of that moment. The consequence continues to ripple on of course.
The use of close-ups helps to hone in on Richard’s and Junn’s mixed feelings of anger and pain. What are some of the challenges of shooting with such tight close-ups?
I felt that I avoided the use of close-ups: it was used very sparingly. The story and emotion were strong enough. We kept shots to medium frame and in single long takes to help balance it from being over the top.
The challenges were more logistical stuff, such as lack of shoot days and airplanes constantly flying over us every five minutes. That really disrupts the actors’ concentration.
What is next for you?
I’ve written a script called Monsoon at the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab earlier this year. It’s a present day film about the repercussion of the Vietnam War: three characters who have not experienced the war directly but are products of it. We watch how this hopeless war is still causing causalities on all sides.
Tom Ue writes for Film International. His edited collection World Film Locations: Toronto was published by Intellect in April 2014, and he is presently writing a book about the White Messiah in contemporary films and editing the Dictionary of Literary Biography 377: Twenty-First Century British Novelists. Ue is Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellow and Canadian Centennial Scholar in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London.