ImageOUT and About: Go See “Lilting” Tonight.

Naomi Christie and Ben Whishaw in "Lilting." (Photo courtesy of ImageOUT)

Naomi Christie and Ben Whishaw in “Lilting.” (Photo courtesy of ImageOUT)

No other individual film in this year’s ImageOUT Film Festival – and few other films this year – moved me as much as Lilting, a restrained yet passionate drama from writer/director Hong Khaou that plays for one night only, today at 6:30pm at the Little Theatre. Written with the intimacy of a staged production, this modest British work – the result of a UK low-budget film initiative sponsored by BBC Films –  brims with love and affection, grief and grace. I expect it to make my shortlist of the year’s best films.

At its core, Lilting is a universal tale of how loss creates a hole that cries out to be filled. Ben Whishaw (perhaps best known as the new Q in Skyfall) plays Richard, a young man whose slender shoulders carry a large burden: Devastated by the sudden death of his lover Kai (Andrew Leung), he’s determined to find a way to connect with Kai’s mother, an elderly Chinese woman now living in a London nursing home. Kai had wrestled with the dilemma of what to do with his mother – and how she might react to his being gay – but his unexpected passing leaves those questions to Richard, who’s separated from Junn (Pei-pei Cheng) by a language barrier and so much more.

Junn, too, is grief-stricken by the loss of her son – and unlike Richard, she can’t even find solace in her environment. To her, Richard was Kai’s roommate, and the main reason she couldn’t move in with her son when he was alive. Now she’s trapped and alone – notwithstanding a friendly but not quite comprehending English-speaking staff and the polite yet bawdy affections of another resident of the home (Peter Bowles). Richard hires a translator (Naomi Christie) and begins the awkward process of reaching out to Junn – no small feat, given her reluctance to let him in and his own feelings of powerless to explain just how much her son meant to him.

Khaou’s story is simple and well told: Instead of tacking on unnecessary subplots, he uses gentle contemplative moments (Richard admiring the wallpaper in Junn’s room; a sweeping pan across the gardens of the nursing home) as grace notes between some of the more uncomfortable interactions among the characters. Flashbacks to previous conversations with Kai fill in some of the narrative gaps, while offering reminders of what Junn and Richard have both lost.

A long time ago, Cheng was a dynamic force as the martial-arts expert Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; here she’s worlds away from that fantasy, but no less captivating as a strong-willed survivor. And Whishaw is a revelation, expertly navigating the rocky terrain of sadness and supportiveness without a stumble.

I hope Lilting comes back soon for a more lengthy run. But we all owe ImageOUT a debt of thanks for bringing it to town.