This fall, Lilting, a haunting movie about grief and loss, opened in theaters across the country (and opens in D.C. this week). Starring Ben Whishaw (“The Hour,” Skyfall) and Cheng Pei-Pei (a 1960s martial arts star known to American audiences for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), the film follows two characters divided by language but united in heartbreak over the death of the same man—a son for one, a lover for the other.

Lilting—funded by a Film London program which gives aspiring filmmakers £150,000 to shoot a full-length feature—opened Sundance and won the Best Cinematography Award and a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize. It's the first full-length film for writer-director Hong Khaou—after a string of critically acclaimed short films—a native Cambodian who emigrated to the U.K. at age eight. On the phone with The New Republic, Khaou discussed language barriers, what it’s like to be an Asian director in the West, and the universal difficulty of coming out. 

Elaine Teng: Where did the idea for the movie come from?

Hong Khaou: It came from a personal place. A lot of the themes in the movie are themes that I’m very close to. We’re an immigrant family, the film’s bilingual, and it’s about a mother who hasn’t assimilated to the Western way of life. I wouldn’t say it’s autobiographical, but it comes from a place that’s very close to me, and I wanted to reimagine it and make it work in the context of the film, to dramatize it.

ET: What was it like working with Ben Whishaw?

HK: It was amazing! He was so generous and incredibly… normal. He really cares about the craft and the arc of the story. I’ve always admired him from seeing so many of his films, and then to watch his process of getting to where a character is—it was really amazing.

The character of Richard [the lover of the deceased] is a really difficult character to play because he has to be so vulnerable and at the same time have a certain strength. I knew from day one that we don’t have anything to hide behind. It’s not a genre script. It’s a performance-led film. If the actors don’t get it right, you’ll miss out on all the nuance and detail that makes the story resonate. I’d seen him in so many films and he’s such an incredible actor. He has such an incredible truth when he plays anything, regardless of what you think of the film.

ET: Why did you decide to tell the story in two languages? How did you navigate two main characters who can’t speak directly to each other?

HK: That was what was fascinating about it. It presents such a complicated challenge, and, as a writer and filmmaker, I relish that. The whole premise is communication. We know communication brings about understanding and bridges cultural differences, but equally it can highlight differences so strongly in some of us that you can have conflict emerging out of it.

ET: I speak Chinese, and I was watching clips of the two characters going back and forth from Chinese to English through a translator, and it was great to see the process happening.

HK: Yeah, I know. It feels very real. I do that with my mother a lot because she doesn’t speak English.

ET: There aren’t many Asian directors working in the U.K. and the U.S. Do you feel like you should tell more Asian stories, or is it just you telling what you know?

HK: That’s a good question. It’s such a weighty thing. I wouldn’t say I’m obligated, but because I am East Asian and I have a particular outlook, it informs what I do. It’s the story that comes up. When it’s a story that I’ve written, inevitably I hope to have an Asian character in there because it’s where I come from, and I want to show that in film because I don’t see it that often. At the same time, I get given scripts as well [to direct], so I hope I can find a balance. 

I know it’s really tough in the industry to tell those kinds of stories. Because Lilting comes from a scheme and it’s low budget, we didn’t have the commercial pressures or constraints that it has to be this way or that way. It really celebrated the artistic voice of the script. So I hope to, but I don’t want to come across as a bearer of change or whatever.

ET: We hear more about South Asian and African immigrant communities in Britain, but not so much about East Asian. What is it like generally to be East Asian in Britain?

HK: I find it odd that there aren’t many stories about the East Asian community in England. We get typecast heavily in mainstream media, in British TV, and in the kinds of films that get released here or in America. It’s still really reductive, and I think instead of waiting for someone to tell our story, we need more people to write their stories, to come from that community, to want to be writers, filmmakers, actors, and storytellers.

ET: So many Asian families have very traditional views on homosexuality. How much does the film deal with that, and how did you approach that?

HK: It wasn’t about how difficult it is to come out to a Chinese mother. It was more about how difficult it is to come out, full stop. Of course culture and religion all bring their specific nuances, but coming out is a universally hard thing to do. I don’t think this is the experience is any more difficult because you’re from an East Asian family. My experience coming out with my mother was fine; she didn’t have a problem with that. But what I really wanted to say was just how difficult it is to have to say that. It carries such a stigma still. We have to tell our parents. It’s a hard thing to have to do, and it carries the fear of disappointing them and the guilt and the shame that have historically been attached to it.


This interview has been edited and condensed.