Lost in translation? Hong Khaou’s film ‘Lilting’

Hong Khaou’s beautiful film ‘Lilting’ deals with loss from different cultural perspectives-see this review from the Phnompenhpost for an interview with the film director Hong Khaou and some background to the film. I was intrigued by the role played by Vann, an interpreter brought in by Richard, who wished to help his boyfriend’s Chinese mother, Junn, now in a residential home, communicate with English Alan, who has taken a fancy to her. Up to this point, their contact has consisted of wordless flirtation, with the would be gallant Alan smooching up to Junn at any opportunity and his attentions being at times rather too tactile. Sessions with the interpreter Vann open up a chasm of misunderstanding and cultural difference between them : Alan is quite open and accepting that he is not close to his sons and that it was better all round that they should put him in a home, which horrifies Junn who sees her relegation to the home as deeply hurtful and against the norms of family life. Questions put to one another through Vann ‘to get to know one another’ lead to humorous responses, some of which are omitted by Vann, and yet English viewers will be aware that Junn is not able to understand Alan’s ironic and particularly English sense of humour. In another session with Vann,  Junn suggests they share with one another the bad habits of the other which particularly annoy them and their frankness leads to both taking offence and Junn then deciding, much to Richard’s annoyance, not to see Alan any more as they are ‘too different’. Vann’s role both with Junn and Alan and then in interpreting between Richard and Junn at times takes her beyond simply conveying the words uttered: she is at times selective to avoid conflict or proactively takes the part of one side, eg Junn when she tells Alan he is going to cook Chinese on their romantic night out. Of course this provides laughs in the film but does bring out the interpreter’s power to manipulate situations to achieve the ends they think best. In contrast to the result of Vann’s intervention with Junn and Alan, her role in aiding communication between Richard and Junn is in the end positive: in a moving scene at Richard’s home, Junn is able to spend time in her son’s room, hear Richard speak frankly about their relationship and express that she is not happy but somehow coming to an acceptance of  her son’s death. Of course this is cinema and the emotion of this final scene is conveyed as much in facial expressions as language, just as the melancholy and loss is expressed in shots of bare branches and slanting winter sunlight. But the exploration in the film of the importance and power of language in communication and cultural understanding resonates and Junn’s face, at times expressive, at others cut off and in her own world, has stayed with me.


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