The language of grief: Hong Khaou on his acclaimed debut film LILTING

Cheng Pei Pei as Junn.

Cheng Pei Pei as Junn.

Produced through the low budget Film London Microwave project, director Hong Khaou's debut feature Lilting - reviewed here - is a hugely impressive piece of work that transcends budget limitations. Starring Ben Whishaw and the legendary Chinese Actress Cheng Pei Pei, the film tells the story of Richard, a young man in London struggling to deal with the loss of his lover Kai. Kai's mother Junn, ensconced in a care home, does not know her son was gay. Richard is drawn to Junn, as she is the last connection he has left to Kai, but he battles with his conflicting desires to reveal all to her, to lash out at her for being such a burden on her son, or to just walk away.

Hong Khaou discussed the film recently with a small audience at the Hackney Picturehouse.

Can you tell us about the origins of the project?

HK:  It was originally a play from about ten years ago, but it never got staged, although it had a few readings. It gathered dust for a long time. Eventually I ended up getting a short film into Sundance, and I knew there was also the Film London Microwave funding scheme available for low budget films. So I started wracking my brain trying to dig up any stories I had. I felt this would fit inside that budget.    

When did you get the shoot rolling?

HK: We shot it two years ago. It took 17 days to shoot, but almost a year to complete. We had to wait a lot for people to be free, given everyone has full time jobs. You just had to wait for them to be available.

Did you work very closely with the actors before going into the shoot? 

HK:  We shot it in seventeen days, so there wasn't a lot of time. Ben Whishaw gave us two weeks of rehearsal, where I think the bulk of the work was done.  We rehearsed certain scenes, but not everything: mostly the emotional scenes.  I also allowed for three or four hours at the end of the day for us to go drinking, mostly for my own confidence and for us to get to know each other!  

Was the script stuck to rigidly, or was there improvisation on location? What was your work process?

HK: I wasn’t too strict about dialogue, and I was happy for the actors to speak the lines as they wanted to speak them. I think they stuck to the script. In terms of shooting, there were no storyboards, I wanted to let us find things on the day. One thing in the film that was never in the script, thanks to our editor Mark, was something in one of the bedroom scenes. The dialogue audio shifted out of sync, I think it was an accident, but it was beautiful. So we played it from every perspective. It continues that idea of memories affected by grief, it became part of the narrative; that idea of: “Did I say that? If only I’d said that”. It was really poignant.

This is obviously a very personal piece. It was originally a straight story, about a daughter and a husband. Was there something you drew on from your own personal experience for the origins of this story?

HK: Yeah it is a very personal film, but it’s not autobiographical. The themes in it are very, very close to me. Turning the story as I did came from the readings i initially had: something felt hollow, something was missing. So I decided to try the idea of making the main character gay. Then there was the issue of the concealing of Richard’s sexuality; I felt that that really added another layer to it, the dynamic of Ben coming in to see Junn and the apprehension within that. This dynamic just didn’t exist in the original play. 

Can you tell us about how you created the particular effects that show character’s perceptions of time are blurring?

HK: It was all done in-camera. We couldn’t afford anything else! There is something exciting about stuff done in-camera though. I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had some moments like that.  When I was shooting it I was thinking of the language to give the film, I wanted grief to permeate the film, but I didn’t want it to be heavy-handed thing. I felt that if I “chaptered” the past, I would be taking the audience out of the film. I wanted to try to create, as much as I could, a continuous effect. It can happen with grief: the past and the present co-exist together. I spent a lot of time thinking about these things, and how I could project this in a way that felt sincere.

We developed our own language for this: for example we only panned the camera clockwise in the present day scenes, and anticlockwise in the past. Also, there is a filmmaker called John Sayles who made a film called Lone Star. A great film, impeccable pacing. He used similar ideas in that film: having characters disappear and re-appear in what seems to be the same timeline.

Lilting is out now.


Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.