Lilting: Interview with Director Hong Khaou

To mark the release of Lilting, I caught up with Cambodian born director Hong Khaou to discuss his debut feature film, starring Ben Whishaw in the leading role.

The film has done very well, and was made as part of the Film London Microwave scheme, can you tell us how it first came about?
Well I was at Sundance film festival with my short film Spring and I remember coming back from the festival, it was such a great experience. I knew the Microwave scheme was around and what it does, is it gives the opportunity for first time feature filmmakers to make a low-budget film. There were other great films, such as Shifty that came out of the scheme and I just went for it.

Your background is in writing, you did a lot of writing first before you came on to direct; how did you first come up with the script?
It’s weird actually, when I first went to film school, writing wasn’t wanted to do, I wanted to become a director, but it’s very hard. I’m not very good at the whole networking, socialising sort of thing so I ended up writing my own stuff, and I think that’s how I fell in to writing. The film came from my own experience. I’m from an immigrant family, I’m bilingual, me and my brothers had assimilated when we came here, and my parents hadn’t really assimilated. I just thought it was a really interesting premise to start on. My main drive when I was writing it back then was all about communication. I wanted the film to be bilingual, I didn’t want to use subtitles, I wanted to have the translator as a major narrative device, because I spent so much of my early days translating for my parents. Even now when I go out for a drink in the evening with my mates, there’s always more than on language being spoken. It happens often in a big cosmopolitan city. It’s wonderful but it can also be confrontational because it highlights differences. So whether it’s cultural or generational, you have conflict rising out of it.

With the language barrier, it’s sometimes hard to express what you’re trying to say. We see this through the exploration of Junn and her relationship with Alan, and how it breaks down when they can understand each other verbally.
Yes that was the intention, and that’s why I wanted their relationship to breakdown. Here and Richard however were able to find something to push forward with, and whether they remain friends or not, we don’t know, but hopefully at least they managed to find some sort of peace within themselves. At the same time I wanted her relationship with Alan to break up because of communication, and also because it didn’t make sense for her to have a relationship as well, especially in that situation and at that age where there are so many differences, not just with language but with cultural differences as well. It would’ve been too fairy tale.

Richard can’t really grieve properly around this woman because he can’t really reveal what their relationship was. Do you feel that acceptance was also a theme? The issues surrounding homosexuality in the film aren’t as palpable as in other films that explore gay relationships.
I didn’t want to make it in to a ‘big thing’ and I think that when he does tell her the truth, it’s really important how she reacts. If she would’ve reacted in a different way, it would’ve taken the film in a different direction, it would’ve been a ‘coming out’ film, but the same time it carries elements of that. When Kai dies, Andy has to Kai’s guilt of not coming out to his mother. When we were rehearsing, I was sitting with Ben (Wishaw) and Andy (Leung) and we felt that it was a really interesting dynamic, Richard almost has to come out all over again and it’s that sensitivity of not knowing if he can do to it or how. Is he doing what’s right for Kai or is he doing it for himself? There’s a lot of internal struggle and conflict that Richard has to process, and he can’t grieve. And grieving is such an odd, messed up process. Richard has to see Kai’s mother to help his own grief but the more he sees her, the more he gets drawn in to her problems.

Richard feels he has a sort of duty to Kai. Kai kept this secret from his Mother for fear of upsetting her and Richard takes it on.
Yes, this sort of thing excites me, the human condition. Why we do the things we do. Towards the end when Richard has this massive row with Junn, it’s so out of character, but all of it needed to be said, and it’s what Kai should’ve said. But then he apologies in a way, because it never bothered him, it bothered Kai.

Grief is such a huge subject. When you’re dealing with it, do you want it to be subtle, or did you want it to be more obvious?
I didn’t want it to be a weepy film. I’m aware that when you’re talking about grief it’s a very emotive subject matter and I think my biggest fear was it to become sentimental but nevertheless I was aware that a film like this has many sentiments in it and when you’re talking about grief, you shouldn’t be afraid of that. It’s hard to find that balance and I remember thinking that the best way I could deal with that would be to be as sincere as I possibly could, so then when you hit those sentimental moments, you’ve sort of earned it and so I’m OK with that. Grief is such a subjective thing too, I knew that I couldn’t please everybody. If we’re being mechanical about it, I put things in place to try and control that I think. For example Richard is very emotional, but Junn isn’t, and if she was there would be a crisis. With grief, you can’t be afraid to talk about it, and also it’s very easy to manipulate, and the minute we feel that, we tend to kick it away. I wanted to find a way that would resonate a bit more. I don’t want to go for the easy route!

Originally published on Hey U Guys

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