Director Hong Khauo’s 2011 short film, Spring exposed Sundance audiences to the S/M relationship of a 20-year-old submissive trainee and the dominate daddy he seeks out to whip him into shape. Khaou continues to explore complex relationships in his exquisite new feature film, Lilting (which screens at Outfest July 16). Starring out British thespian Ben Whishaw and set in contemporary London, the film follows a Cambodian Chinese mother (Asian action film icon Pei-pei Cheng) as she mourns the untimely death of her son, Kai. Retreating to the comfort of nostalgic memories, her world is suddenly disrupted when Kai’s roommate, Richard visits. Consumed with grief and the memories of his loving relationship with Kai, Richard struggles with the decision to share the truth with her. Unable to communicate through a common language Richard employs a translator and they begin to piece together memories of a man they both loved. Hong Khauo chatted with Queerty about his inspiration for his film and mothers who struggle to accept that their sons are gay.
Where did the initial idea for Lilting come from?
The idea came from within really. I’m bi-lingual and as an immigrant family, my brothers and sister have assimilated whereas it was harder for my mother. It started there as a premise, imagined and reimagined how she would cope if her lifeline was removed.
Lilting is an unconventional title. How did you choose that title and how does the word “lilting” best represent the story of the film?
I love the word, it sounds like it could be onomatopoeic. It means a lyrical, rhythmically movement. The film contains all these ‘Lilting’ qualities such as music, dance, languages and songs, the way the camera moves between the past and the present. I wanted a poetic interpretation.
It was entirely intentional. I like the way you phrase it as a mystery. It was always going to be a quiet film, with the small details resonating deeply. The strength of the film comes from those personal moments that will hopefully chime with you.
Ben Whishaw gives a wonderfully restrained and grounded performance as the grieving boyfriend, Richard. How did he come on board?
I’m such a fan of his work. We approached him with the script. He liked it and said yes. I still can’t quiet believe it. His performances was incredible wasn’t it? Full of vulnerability and strength.
Communication and grief were the themes, and as they reverberate it touches on other subjects such as memory, the immigrant experience, inter- cultural and inter-generational issues.
For many, the thought of a man in his 30s coming out to his mother in 2014 doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Is it a more complex issue within the Asian community?
I think coming out is still a big deal regardless of cultures and countries. It’s the internal struggle we have. It’s certainly easier now; you only have to see the recent events in America with It Gets Better campaign.
Why is Kai was struggling with that decision so much? Is it because his mother is culturally traditional or because his partner is white?
The struggle is the same struggle we all have, the fear of disappointing our parents and the sense of shame. It’s not cultural or traditions, but of course they certainly play their roles.
I hate to boil it down to a cliché but, the saying “The truth shall set you free.” really does apply here. Doesn’t Junn need to hear the truth about Richards’s relationship with her son almost as much as he needs to tell her?
Absolutely. They both needed to hear that. They’ve been dancing around it and it needed to pour out. It certainly feels like they both needed to talk.
How do you grieve a partner when you aren’t even allowed to acknowledge he was your partner? Is that the real reason Richard continues to visit Junn?
Richard visiting Junn has more to do with the guilt that he carries, transferred from Kai. And in his grieving process he visits Junn and is so taken by her situation he decides to help her, hoping this will bridge their difficult relationship. And of course as things start unraveling, he gets deeper into it. I don’t know if it helps to give a concrete reason, we do very odd things when we’re grieving for a loved one.
There is a sense of desperation about all three characters. Kai struggles to do the right thing for both his mother and partner. Richard to do right by Kai after his death yet he can’t be entirely honest about their relationship. And Kai’s mother, Junn who needs constant reassurance from her son that she is important.
I’m glad you’ve picked that up. I spent a lot of time thinking on these small details, how we have similarities and differences. How painfully sad it was they didn’t talk. If only they would have talked.
In a climatic confrontation Junn says, “You’ve taken away my family and now I’m stuck in this awful place.” I feel like Richard could have said same line to her… they both feel so lost without Kai in their life.
Absolutely. They are both very different people and yet they share this deep love for the same man. And with Vann communicating for them, they were able to find some peace. I wanted to show these juxtapositions in the film.
Lilting premiered at Sundance. It recently won the First Feature Film-Honorable Mention at Frameline and is screening this week at OutFest. What’s next for you?
I’m working on a script called Monsoon that has been through the Sundance screenwriters Lab. I’m off to Vietnam for two months to finish the draft.
Watch the Lilting trailer below.