Film | Extended Interview with Hong Khaou, Director of Lilting

Photos: Curzon Cinemas

In our extended interview, Melissa Baksh speaks with film director Hong Khaou ahead of the release of his debut feature Lilting, which explores displacement, loss and loneliness, and stars Ben Whishaw and Pei-pei Cheng.

Is it fair to say that your childhood experiences have influenced Lilting?
I was born in Cambodia, where my whole family were displaced by Pol Pot. We then moved to Vietnam for some years, so all of my early childhood memories are from Saigon. I came to England when I was 8 years old and have lived in London ever since. To this day my mother can’t speak English at all, and when I was younger I was resentful and angry, because she hadn’t assimilated – I found it an odd thing. But when you get older you start to reflect and realise how much parents have had to sacrifice. Lilting came from those kind of feelings.

Would you say that Lilting is autobiographical?
It’s not entirely autobiographical, but the themes in it are very close to me. The character of Junn is like my mother in the way that they both don’t speak English. I then had to re-imagine how a woman would cope if her lifeline to the outside world-  her child – was gone. When you put a character under this kind of pressure, you get really interesting results.

So what does your mother think of Lilting?
She hasn’t seen it yet! We couldn’t afford to subtitle it into Chinese. She knows about it though. I’m intrigued to see what she says. We are waiting on the subtitles from Taiwan, so she’ll see it soon.

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Ben Whishaw and Pei-pei Cheng in Lilting

It seems like the theme of communication is the most important of the film. Would you agree?
The film touches on several themes but the main theme is communication. Things then reverberate out of that, such as memory, grief, intergenerational and intercultural things. Language brings about understanding and compromises; it also highlights differences that are so strong in some of us, in a cultural or generational way. I wanted to talk about both sides of the coin.

I am curious about your choice of Lilting for the title. For me it has dream-like connotations. Why Lilting?
It was so difficult to come up with a title. Originally, when it was a play, it was called ‘Lilting to the Past’, but some felt it didn’t make sense. I wanted to give it a more poetic interpretation. The film has many lilting qualities; for instance I think that Mandarin is a lilting, song-like language, and it is spoken in the film . Also in the way the film is paced; there is a slow but intense momentum there. It suits the film.

You won an award for Best Cinematography at this year’s Sundance film Festival. Did the cinematography come about in quite an organic way or did you have a fixed idea about it?
It certainly evolved, but much was already set in the script. For instance, the way we move between the past and the present; the camera moves seamlessly and in a single shot you leave the present and a character reappears in a different timeline. The script was always very intimate and reflective; we had to find things in keeping with that tone, a kind of language to weave it all together. We decided that for scenes set in the present day the camera could only pan clockwise; for scenes set in the past or imagined scenes, the camera would pan anti-clockwise.

What inspired you to make Lilting?
The drive behind it was language and communication, and I wanted the translator character to be a big device. I’m not sure if my drive was to talk about displacement and the immigration experience, but as the story progressed, in a selfish and artistic way I found these themes came about as I continued to write. I think they’re really interesting themes and something I don’t see often. Nobody has talked about the British East-Asian community in film very much. As a whole, though, I just wrote from a place I know well. As this is my first feature and we had a very low budget I stayed with the familiar. I had to make sure I was willing to go that place and stir certain feelings.

Did you find the film-making experience a cathartic one?
I found the making extremely painful and stressful. The process was extremely short- we had just seventeen days. If anything it’s now a strange thing to have to talk about it, and to feel exposed by it. I wish I could say it was cathartic. We never thought the film would get to the point where it would be in the cinema. I really enjoyed the writing, though. In particular I loved writing the monologues- I spent a lot of time on them.

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Hong Khaou on set

Lilting is set in contemporary London. Does London lend itself well to this story or was it chosen because it’s a place you feel connected to?
Definitely both. Whenever I go out there’s always more than one language being spoken- that’s very indicative of multicultural London. I think this story couldn’t happen in a small town. When you talk about the immigrant experience, I think it feels more realistic to set it in a big cosmopolitan city.

Who are your favourite directors?
I like so many it’s almost silly.  Lilting was very much influenced by three films; an old film called Rogue from Hong Kong by Stanley Kwan, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene and Lone Star by John Sayles. Those last two films have a lovely pace to them; they’re impeccable. I wanted Lilting to have that quality.

So, what’s next?
I’m off to Vietnam in October to research and write my next film: Monsoon. It will be about the repercussions about the Vietnam war, and the people who haven’t experienced the war directly but are a product of it. It’s odd that the Vietnam War-film has become a genre in itself, but an America-centric one. I want to find another angle into that and readdress the balance.

Lilting is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 29th September.


Melissa Baksh

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