There’s little joy to be derived from panning a low-key gay drama that’s also an earnest study of tensions between an immigrant Chinese mother and her assimilated son in the U.K. (It’s not as if there’s a surplus of either type of film to pick and choose from.) But writer-director Hong Khaou’s debut feature is still woefully inadequate. It performs its first (and only) upending of expectations in the first 10 minutes, as Junn (Cheng Pei-Pei) chews out dutiful son Kai (Andrew Leung) for leaving her in a senior-citizen facility. Their back-and-forth—she’s alternately wheedling and affectionate, he’s endlessly patient—rings true before it’s revealed that she’s talking to herself. Kai is dead, and his sudden disappearance from the conversation in a single quiet edit is a genuine shock. His partner, Richard (Ben Whishaw), has the painful task of trying to look after Junn while maintaining the illusion that he was only a particularly good friend rather than a lover.
A standard directive for indie-film writers is to limit the number of locations to keep costs down. Lilting takes that logic to unimaginative extremes, largely confining itself to a pair of apartments. In the past, Kai and Richard lie in bed together, as the latter tries to convince the former that his parent would be just fine with him (“You should have your mum over for dim sum”); in the present, Richard tries to make headway with Junn through Vann (Naomi Christie), an impossibly patient interpreter.
All that’s really required is to get through 80 minutes of drama before it can be revealed why Kai died, and the film doesn’t build to that climax so much as pad out its running time while delaying the underwhelming final reveal. Khaou and cinematographer Urszula Pontikos use the most basic editorial coverage playbook to tackle the not particularly insightful script. The strategy is the same regardless of the scene or people involved: closeup, reverse shot, master shot, repeat. There’s an inadvertently comical lack of variation in these basic setups, which exacerbates the fundamentally lackluster nature of the dialogue and dynamics.
Khaou’s avoidance of visual fireworks and his attempt to barrel through his own script in such a workmanlike fashion has the side effect of letting his actors down: Moored at the center of perpetual medium shots, Whishaw’s performance comes off as nothing more than an endless panoply of anxious side glances and twitching beard-scratching. The mother-son rapport is given priority in both the narrative and in Richard and Kai’s relationship, the latter rendered almost exclusively as a series of chats about coming out. That, too, is treated generically—the comfortably out partner gently trying to coax his boyfriend into taking the plunge—and the single-topic dialogue has the crackle of a very tentative therapy session. Ignore its title: Rather than rising and falling through precisely captured emotions, Lilting tonally flatlines from the get-go.