Pei Pei Cheng in "Lilting"

Interview: Hong Khaou on the Eloquence
of Miscommunication in “Lilting”

Near the end of “Lilting,” there’s a breathtaking shot that pans around a room that eventually fills up with people, with one person stepping into the frame with each passing revolution of the camera. Making his first feature, Hong Khaou didn’t think this would be too difficult, though judging by the amount of unbroken takes in “Lilting,” the Cambodian-born, British-bred director is a bit of a risktaker.

“It seemed so simple, but God, there were so many things to get right,” recalls Khaou. “If the actors hit their spot, the camera wasn’t moving smoothly. They’d have to run behind this cable, then they had to change their clothes, then the camera had to hit that spot, and they had to hit it before we arrived. There were a thousand things to get right.”

You wouldn’t know this from watching the final film since “Lilting” unfolds beautifully onscreen, but more impressive than getting the timing right is how emotionally precise Khaou is, with that scene being the culmination of a perfectly calibrated drama about a Cambodian woman named Junn (Pei Pei Cheng) and her son’s lover Richard (Ben Whishaw) coming to terms with the death of her child Kai (Andrew Leung), though the two can never quite connect since Kai kept his partner a secret from his mother. Khaou has been building towards “Lilting,” making shorts that explored sexuality at defining moments, whether it was 2007’s “Summer,” in which a pair of friends’ playful exchanges about sexual prowess turn serious towards each other, or 2011’s “Spring,” where a young man tries sadomasochism for the first time.

Yet after receiving a grant from the Microwave competition in England, which nurtures rising talent with enough to cover a micro-budget feature, Khaou was emboldened to explore sexuality in how it can define a relationship rather than being engaged in it firsthand, watching as Junn and Richard gradually make strides to understand each other once Kai’s death makes Richard the only one who can take care of Junn in her nursing home. Together, they share the grief of losing a loved one, but little else. As she strikes up a romantic relationship of her own with an elder British gent named Alan (Peter Bowles), with whom she can’t actually communicate verbally, Richard takes it upon himself to find a common language for the two, and with the help of a translator, begins to make inroads himself.

Watching the story unfold is similar to seeing Khaou tell it, pushing himself and his actors towards somewhere transcendent even if it means some jagged edges along the way. He’ll stage transitions between scenes that happen in camera without a cut and refuse to flinch from the film’s most penetrating emotional moments, allowing his characters to blossom before your eyes. On the eve of the film’s release, Khaou spoke about how “Lilting” first evolved from a play he wrote when he was in a different place in his life, creating dialogue that’s meant to be misinterpreted, dealing with loss and how he filmed those extraordinary single-take scenes.

Pei Pei Cheng and Ben Whishaw in "Lilting"What was it like returning to something that you had put away for 10 years?

In some way, it helped that [as a play] it never got staged. We had a few readings, but when this competition appeared called Microwave, I felt at least I had a story I knew very well, and I could write it quickly to submit. It’s very different from the play now – the themes are similar, but a lot had to change. There was originally a daughter, and it’s now a son who isn’t able to open up about his sexuality to his mother, which added another really rich layer to the whole story dynamics.

You’ve said that you wrote it initially as an angry young man, and while there are pangs of anger still in there, it’s a gentle film. Do you think perspective helped?

Yes, absolutely. I wrote it when I was young and angry and having become 38 now, you reach a point in your life where you understand the sacrifices that our parents made to give us, their children, a better life, which is why when I was writing this as a film, I really stewed on the themes a lot longer, just trying to make sure that the tone was right.

Was communication, or miscommunication as it may be with all that’s lost in translation, always at the heart of it?

Communication was a big starting point, and I wanted to show the two sides to that coin. We all know that it bridges cultural differences, and it brings an understanding, but what can be very playful and interesting is to show the flip side of that, in how it highlights differences so strong, that you do have conflict. It felt right for her relationship with Alan to break, but through communication, and also to have her and Richard find some peace or closure [through it too].

There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where she’s dancing with Alan, a man she’s bonded with at her retirement home, and she begins to speak in Chinese, even though she knows he won’t understand her, and then her dance partner morphs into her son Kai, who she can no longer connect with since he’s just passed, but it’s this amazing moment where you see her being trapped and embraced at the same time, caught between the past and the present. Was that a difficult scene to figure out?

It was always a dancing scene between her and Alan and it was always her monologue about her inner feelings, but it felt like if she’s talking about worst thing [that’s happened to her], you needed something softer to wrap around her, which is the dancing. The [scene] is talking about memory, but specifically dealing with grief and I wanted the memory of Kai to almost leave a footprint, or permeate the film, so one minute she’s dancing with Alan, and the next minute she’s dancing with her son, it creates that sense of slight deliriousness or illusion. When you’re grieving for somebody, it’s not chaptered. It’s very continuous. I could have this conversation with you and whatever we talk about could trigger a memory of my father. It all happens on the same timeline.

Obviously, there were scenes you set up in advance so the transitions were all done within camera, but did that interplay between the past and present make this a difficult film to edit?

It was a very difficult thing to edit, actually. [In the dancing scene you just mentioned, for example] where it needed mapping out, I needed to storyboard exactly how am I going to get from Alan to her dancing with her son. I had specific ideas — [particularly the] hand embracing, which is an intimate thing, and when you open up, it’s her son. Those needed very, very careful planning to make sure we shoot it right, so it can serve the edit and we had a long time to edit, which was really good, because in that editing, we discovered some beautiful things that were never in the script.

For example, the bedroom scenes between Richard and Kai where their dialogue is out of sync, Mark [Towns, our editor] found this lovely way to do that, I think, accidentally. We played it from Richard’s perspective, from Kai’s, and then from both. We decided to stay with Richard because it was he who was grieving. The reason we loved it was because it continues that idea that it’s memory, but memory to deal with grief, so we picked really specific places to shift [the voices] out of sync. You’re not quite sure whether [Kai] has said it, and [Richard’s] not quite sure whether he has said it, but they’re very important words, like, oh my God, did I say it? Should I have said it? If only I’d said it. It makes the scene a bit more heartfelt, poignant and intimate.

Andrew Leung and Ben Whishaw in "Lilting"Also during the bedroom scene, there’s a moment where you do a freeze frame and zoom in, which proves to be a great moment, but one that’s out of character with the rest of the film. Why did it feel right to do that?

Again, we found that in the edit. We were playing around, and in previous cuts, there were more freeze frames. One of the notes [from our producers] was that it was too much. We slowly pulled back and we ended up with only two moments which [bookend] Richard and Kai’s time together, so the beginning of the bedroom scene we had that, and the end of the dancing scene we had that. It felt right to do it, because, again, it was in keeping to the idea of memory and [grief being a] stillness you move into.

Does Pei Pei Cheng speak English? Was the dynamic between the actors was the same off-screen as it was on, in terms of language?

She can speak English, so it wasn’t the same as that, but she’s very different. The crew really fell in love with her. She became like a grandmother for them. But when I was directing her, I directed her in Chinese instead of English, because it was just easier for me to do that, but also because I felt protected by that. I was able to just give her notes that nobody else could hear. When a set can be so chaotic and too many people listen in, I prefer that.

Since “Lilting” started life as a play, was it originally your intention to be a playwright?

I studied film, but I joined a lot of theater writing classes and workshops as a way for me to brush up on the craft of writing. I wouldn’t say I could write plays, but in the early days, when I’d just graduated, it was very hard to get gigs making making films, so it was a good way for me to stretch the muscle.

You actually worked in film distribution for a time. Did that give you a certain perspective on how you’d go about actually making a film?

It does. Film distribution is a whole industry that we don’t learn about in film school, and it’s an enormous sector. When I was making this, I certainly called up a lot of contacts and friends I’ve made through film distribution to help, and they certainly have. The insight it gave me was that I knew “Lilting” isn’t especially sexy commercially, but if I achieved everything I wanted to achieve, “Lilting” could potentially have a life in the film festival circuit where certain territories would buy it. The ambition was for it to be an arthouse film. There’s no formula in order to achieve that, but [being in the industry beforehand] certainly gave me the knowledge that it can go to various different places if I achieved what I wanted to.

I’ve heard you’re actually going to return to shorts after this to complete a quadrilogy based on the different seasons.

Yeah, that’s the idea. The Summer, Spring, Winter and Fall months. But I don’t know now. Once you’ve made a feature, the amount of time just to get a short film off the ground, you might as well just do a feature, really [since] that’s where the career is.

Hong Khaou on the set of "Lilting"What was your first day on set of your first feature like?

That was an immensely stressful day. I had a really horrible email that really threw me off that day, which I can’t really go into too much detail, but then the first day of shoot was the café scene [where Richard meets a translator (played by Naomi Christie)] and the character Richard had to go out and change his clothes [because the next scene in which he’s in the same cafe talking to Kai happens without an edit]. We only shot that scene for the entire day, and I think we gave ourselves a big problem because there were so many things that needed to work. Originally, in the script, that scene was all in one take. But Naomi was quite nervous because she’s never acted before, and it was Andrew [Leung]’s first feature as well, so I decided to just do some coverage, just in case, to help keep the momentum going.

“Lilting” opens in New York at the Village East on Sept. 26 and in Los Angeles on October 3rd at the Pasadena Playhouse 7.

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