The common language of grief overcomes communication barriers in Lilting, the melancholic debut feature by Hong Khaou. Chinese acting legend Pei-Pei- Cheng is June, a woman in her golden years who we meet as she's conversing playfully with her son, Kai (Andrew Leung). Their rapport is obvious and instant; there's real love there but also something deeply hidden. He recently put her in a retirement community, and she resents how Kai is becoming less of a presence in her life. She blames his friend and roommate, Richard (Ben Whishaw), for driving them apart. But then a sudden visitor to the room shakes June, and we realize that this surreal conversation she's been having has been with herself.
Kai recently passed away, leaving her stuck in a home that was meant to only be temporary. Richard seems to be the only one left to visit her, but we don't know why he feels that obligation. Through flashback we see his life with Kai, and it's obvious they were more than just best friends, which is what Richard claims through choked-back tears. June never knew her son was gay, and now Richard hopes to keep his dead lover's one wish to keep his mother happy. To that end, Richard hires a translator to help June and her American boyfriend communicate, but instead the attempt only causes more problems.
Sometimes, feelings and emotion can convey more than words will ever say, and although this is one of the film's central ideas it's also one Khaou would have been wise to heed himself. The clunky script is made all the more unwieldy by having much of the dialogue passed through an intermediary, sapping the words of their strength. The film is more successful in the quiet spaces where these characters hide their despair and shame, with Khaou immersing them in ghostly, serene imagery as if everyone is just waking from a dream. Despite weighty material that would seem ripe for confrontation and exploration of cultural differences, the script is too uneven for much of it to resonate, and the film suffers from a severe lack of forward momentum. Whishaw spends much of the film in tears as Richard grieves over of Kai, and Cheng can say more with her sad eyes than most can with their entire bodies. Khaou's assertion that love and the pain of loss are the same for all people is commendable, but Lilting is an underwhelming film that will have a tough time attracting much of an audience.