Lilting is the touching debut feature by Cambodian born director Hong Khaou. Ben Whishaw plays Richard, who has lost his long term partner Kai (Andrew Leung) in accident. Kai was incredibly close to his Cambodian Chinese mother, who is unable to speak English and so is completed isolated without him. In attempt to feel close to Kai, and to honour him, Richard reaches out to Kai’s mother Junn (Pei-pei Cheng), in the hope that he also bring her some comfort. Junn was unaware of their relationship, firmly believing that they were just best friends, and initially greets Richard’s attempts at a friendship with some suspicion. But as their relationship blossoms, what plays out is a gentle, if somewhat challenging piece.

Grief is a subject covered often in cinema, and director Hong Khaou certainly attempts to explore the subject in an interesting way. Flashbacks see Richard and Kai in intimate moments, Richard recalling the memories of the little things he shared with Kai, the sort of in jokes, petty arguments and funny habits that he misses. But sadly the study of grief as a whole seems fairly vague. The rawness of the emotion never really gets through, and a lot of the time it’s frustrating to watch. Some of the dialogue is stilted, and not just because of the language barrier. Whishaw himself, whilst undeniably sweet and likeable as Richard, is unfortunately not well suited in this instance. He’s a wonderful actor, but in certain roles, his tendency to overact and be theatrical can be incredibly distracting, and in this instance it makes some of the scenes seem quite artificial.

Pei-pei Cheng is exceptionally good as Kai’s mother. She’s clouded by her grief, and the death of her son is all the more painful as it leaves her feeling totally alone, in a care home where nobody speaks her language. Her romantic relationship with a fellow resident is very touching, and provides a welcome spark to the morose tone, and the study of her isolation and alienation from her surroundings is by far the best thing about the film.

The film comes from a really genuine place, but sadly just doesn’t quite reach far enough in terms of its exploration of a notoriously difficult subject. It feels overly long for its running time, and doesn’t delve deeply enough in to any of the areas that Khaou is trying to explore, preferring to skim lightly over subjects that should perhaps be given a little more time. It’s worth a watch just for Pei-pei Cheng alone, but other films with the same ideas have achieved far more.