Hong Khaou’s “Lilting” opens with a close-up of wallpaper, and never gets much livelier than that. Not that it should, being a film about memory, the passage of time, communication, guilt, and other subjective matters. But unlike other films that successfully explore abstractions, such as Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” or the memoiristic collages of Terence Davies, it doesn’t seem to have much going on beneath the drab surface.
Not for lack of trying. Hong turns in stiff pirouettes of chronology — repeating key scenes, revolving from past to present within a grand 360-degree pan. Like the opening shot, in which Junn (a still-striking Cheng Pei-Pei, noted for her roles in ’60s Hong Kong martial arts films and in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), a 70ish Cambodian-Chinese woman, sits in her room at an elderly residence (where the wallpaper is).
Her son Kai (Andrew Leung) drops in, leading to a tense showdown (all in Mandarin; Junn never learned to speak English) where she complains about being packed away in a home while Kai shares his apartment with his “friend” Richard (Ben Whishaw). She doesn’t know Kai is gay (the audience is supposed to be cued when he identifies her vase of flowers as hydrangeas), and Kai is afraid to tell her. But it’s all in her mind anyway, because it’s a recurring memory of the last time she saw her son [spoiler!] alive.
There’s a lot of that going on.
But ironing out all the fussy, formal filigrees, the story comes down to the grieving Richard’s attempts to take on Kai’s role as Junn’s caregiver, which means a lot of paperwork, guilt-tripping, ingratitude, and disdain (Cheng’s expression ranges from haughty indignation to contemptuous incredulity).
Richard sees Junn’s budding romance with her fellow resident Alan (Peter Bowles) as a possible way of reaching out to her. Since neither speaks the other’s language, Richard figures he can win points by hiring a translator, Vann (Naomi Christie), to help them communicate. As might be expected, the plan does not go smoothly, and the lovebirds’ dialogue degenerates at times into such exchanges as the following:
Alan (hurt because Junn has expressed annoyance with him pinching her butt): Your breath stinks. It’s like rotten cheese. Worse.
Junn: (with a regal glare, as translated by Vann): Your whole body smells like urine.
There’s a lesson to be learned here. It is that Hong should have given more screen time to Christie, who is slyly subversive and very funny. And maybe focused the story more on the two oldsters and perhaps eliminated the tired gay coming-out angle, even though Whishaw puts all he’s got into a one-note character. As it is, a more fitting title for the film would be “Limping.”
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.