Pei-pei Cheng in Lilting, written and directed by Hong Khaou, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas today.
, written and directed by Hong Khaou, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas today.

Pei-pei Cheng is a Chinese cinema legend. Born in Shanghai in 1946, Cheng began her film career in the mid ‘60s, appearing in so many wuxia films that she quickly acquired the sobriquet The Queen of Swords. She’s probably best known to western audiences for her performance as deadly assassin Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s surprise 2000 blockbuster, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

She’s kept busy since then – and in more than just martial arts movies. Her latest is Lilting (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 17), a lovely if somewhat implausible chamber piece in which our heroine throws little more than cutting glances at her enemies.

Cheng plays Junn, a Cambodian-Chinese immigrant living, grumpily, in a London old folk’s home. Originally intended by son Kai (Andrew Leung) as a temporary abode until he summons up the courage to come out to Mum as gay, the home has become a prison of sorts for Junn, who speaks virtually no English and doesn’t much enjoy the day trips.

Junn wants to live with Kai, but Kai is in a long-term relationship with Richard (Ben Whishaw) and isn’t ready to reveal the truth about his life just yet. When fate intervenes in the form of a fatal road accident, however, Richard is forced to confront his new role: that of caretaker for his deceased partner’s mother.

Engaging the services of a helpful young Chinese woman named Vann (Naomi Christie) to serve as translator, Richard visits Junn and discovers she’s in a flirty relationship with Alan (Peter Bowles), a fellow resident who doesn’t understand a word she says. Determined to make Junn’s life pleasanter, Richard decides to do what he can to bring Alan and Junn closer together, while establishing a deeper relationship with her — and continuing to conceal the true nature of his relationship with Kai. Needless to say, that proves challenging.

There are some bones to pick with Lilting‘s plot. It’s hard to believe Vann would dedicate such a substantial portion of her life translating for a total stranger, especially when some of the conversations take deeply personal and uncomfortable turns. Perhaps Richard is paying her a huge sum for her services; if so, the source of his money is mysterious, as he doesn’t seem to have a job. And is Junn really not bright enough not to have figured things out all on her own?

Credulity duly stretched, it must be noted that the cast is uniformly superb, with Whishaw (the new ‘Q’ in the ‘James Bond’ series) delivering a particularly heartfelt performance. It’s also a delight to see Bowles in a meaty role – the man has been a quiet stalwart of British cinema for decades. Written and directed by Cambodian-born Hong Khaou, Lilting is an exquisitely crafted and moving character study of four very different people trying to communicate with one another – plus one angelic translator who really, really enjoys her work.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...