The buzz around Hong Khaou's dreamy debut feature Lilting has been growing since its premiere at Sundance, where it netted a cinematography award for its evocative look. Ben Whishaw plays Richard, a guy grieving over the recent death of his boyfriend Kai (Andrew Leung). He tries to connect with Kai's Mandarin-speaking mother Junn (Cheng Pei-pei), despite their lack of a common language and her obliviousness to the fact they were lovers. With Lilting out in the UK this Friday, we spoke to its Cambodia-born, London-based director about shooting in two languages, and merging retro with now.
I love the idea of the retirement home's decor in Lilting, which harks back to other decades to remind its inhabitants of when they were young. Where did that idea come from?
Hong Khaou: I'd seen the idea in a documentary. It's a legit theory they were trialling to help the elderly fit into a rest home, a really smart idea that I thought could fit into Lilting because it's about the memory, it's inter-generational and of course it allows the film to look beautiful. At the beginning you think you're watching a retro period film, but then you should start noticing things like the Nivea cream and the pill box are modern. I wanted it to be hard to tell between past and present. Miren Maranon did the set design wonderfully on such a small budget. She got all the 50s wallpaper from Belgium, and the hydrangeas from Amsterdam. I was very influenced by the languid quality of Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. I also referenced Martha Marcy May Marlene with my DOP a lot – its floating, dreamlike quality.
Gaps in language and communication are central to the film, as well as other gulfs in understanding...
Hong Khaou: I've always wanted to talk about communication. I'm bilingual and from an immigrant background. My parents are Cambodian-Chinese. We were displaced by Pol Pot to Vietnam, then moved over to England when I was eight. Communication brings about understanding and bridges cultural differences, but at the same time it can highlight differences so strong, and there are conflicts right now because of that. I wanted to comment on the two sides to that coin. I did think about whether to subtitle it, but if you use a translator right it can enhance all those things you want to talk about, be it awkwardness or becoming part of a secret you don't want to be involved in. And it sounds so cheesy, but we can read emotion – it's a language we can understand without it needing to be vocalised.
“When you're young you find the medium of film really playful, because it's such a populist medium, running around with a camera” – Hong Khaou
How did you come to cast martial arts film star Cheng Pei-pei?
Hong Khaou: I wanted someone legendary, and Pei-pei I've known of since I was a child. She was so radical at that time – you just didn't get woman kung fu fighters normally. I'd seen her in another film from New Zealand, and it totally demonstrated that she could do drama. She often doesn't get such meaty roles, and I figured if she had the opportunity we might have a good chance that she would engage with it. And Ben I've been a fan of since Perfume. The whole film is performance really, if I'd gotten the wrong actors the writing would've just felt really clunky or even like kitchen-sink drama. It really needed phenomenal actors to get those nuances.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Hong Khaou: I did a two-year foundation course, and tried out all the art forms from graphic illustration to fine art. I initially wanted to be a fine artist but i didn't like it. When you're young you find the medium of film really playful, because it's such a populist medium, running around with a camera. I don't think I had this kind of epiphany or anything but film felt right, I was comfortable in it, so that's what I did my degree in.
You developed Lilting through the Microwave scheme, right?
Hong Khaou: Yes, it's a scheme for first-time feature filmmakers. I was introduced to producer Dom (Buchanan, who also produced Gimme the Loot) through that and really liked his ambition. That word has a negative connotation but i don't mean it like that, I mean he has done a lot for himself on his own, really grafted and worked to get where he is. We just decided to go for it.
What's next for you?
Hong Khaou: My latest script was selected for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. I've just been through that and am off to Vietnam to write another draft. It's a present-day film about the repercussions of the Vietnam War to this day. It features three adults who are products of that war but didn't experience it directly – an American man whose father fought in it, a Vietnamese man whose family was displaced by it, and a Vietnamese girl who idolises the west and wants to leave Vietnam.
What advice would you give to young filmmakers looking to start out?
Hong Khaou: I don't know if I'm in a position to give advice to be honest as I'm still learning myself. Maybe – just stick at it.