A critically acclaimed indie feature film explores the tiny community in London
Filmmaker Hong Khaou is Chinese-Cambodian, but he doesn’t remember life in the Kingdom. He was just a few months old when the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh in 1975, and his middle-class parents, knowing they would be a target, fled immediately to Vietnam, a journey that took 40 days.
They remained there for eight years before finally moving to London, where his father washed dishes in Chinatown and Khaou grew up to study film at the University for the Creative Arts. He worked at a small film distribution company for many years before making his first short film, Spring, which was selected for the Sundance Film Festival in 2011.
His debut feature film, Lilting, released last week in the UK, tells the story of an elderly Chinese-Cambodian woman in London, where Khaou still lives. The film, which has been well received by critics, is a gentle, moving story interspersed with comedic moments.
“It’s very much about the immigrant experience, without being heavy-handed about it,” Khaou, now 38, said from his home in Hackney, east London, earlier this week. “I haven’t seen a film set in London with these characters before.”
Lilting, which Khaou both wrote and directed, centres around Junn, who has just moved into a retirement home and speaks practically no English. When her son dies – the only person with whom she could communicate – she has to use a translator, Vann, to communicate with her son’s gay partner, Richard – played by Ben Whishaw, a UK household name.
“I didn’t know Ben before, but I have been a fan since seeing him in Perfume. Lilting needed an incredible actor that has vulnerability and strength, and I felt he had all those qualities ... We sent him the script and had a few meetings, and he eventually agreed to do the film.”
The fact that Junn’s son had never come out to her creates an added tension. It’s a quiet drama focused on family, sexuality and cultural boundaries – but it’s also a touching and, at times, comic comment on language. Richard isn’t the only one yearning to reach out to Junn: she has a boyfriend at her retirement home, a Brit who speaks no Chinese.
Both he and Richard rely on Vann to communicate with someone who is very dear to them for different reasons – but with whom neither of them has had any previous verbal contact. In Vann’s translations, she slips between pronouns “I” and “she”; she even begins to withhold information or tell Junn more than she is supposed to. Her role, as the gatekeeper of language, is a critical one.
“Language has always been with me, being bilingual,” Khaou said. “It’s a constant presence at home.” He added that living in a multicultural metropolis such as London, it was common to hear several different languages being spoken.
He added: “It’s not in any way autobiographical, but it contains a lot of things that are personal to me. I had to imagine how my real mother would cope if her lifeline to the outside world was gone.”
Growing up in Chiswick, west London, Khaou and his three siblings were not taught Khmer by their mother, and she hardly spoke to them about her memories of Cambodia. Instead, they were brought up on a linguistic diet of Cantonese and Hokkien, a dialect common to ethnic Chinese living throughout Southeast Asia.
Unlike France, Australia and the US, the UK doesn’t boast a significant Cambodian immigrant community. According to the Cambodian embassy in London, there are fewer than 1000 Cambodians living in the country. This became evident to Khaou at a young age: other than a Chinese classmate in his primary school, he can’t remember anyone else with a similar heritage.
It is rare to find a Cambodian whose life wasn’t turned upside down after Pol Pot came to power. But the trajectory of Khaou and his family on the map of the Cambodian diaspora is an unusual one. His father was born in China and emigrated to the Kingdom, where he met Khaou’s mother and ran a textile shop. To come to London and have to wash dishes was trying. “It was very difficult”, said Khaou. “I wouldn’t say [my father] was wealthy, but he was well-off back in Phnom Penh. Even in Vietnam, he had a scooter, which was seen as a status symbol.”
It’s a cruel reality familiar to many Cambodian refugees: they fled Pol Pot’s persecution of the middle class and ended up living, at least at first, a quality of life that was much poorer overseas.
As for Chinese-Cambodians – or Khmer Chen as they are commonly known – they made up a significant proportion of Phnom Penh’s merchant class, and despite Beijing’s diplomatic support for the Khmer Rouge, they didn’t escape persecution.
Last year, Khaou returned to Cambodia for the first time, staying with a cousin in Phnom Penh.
“It was really odd – I had no memories of it, so at the beginning I was struggling and I didn’t feel connected. I felt like a privileged tourist,” he said, adding that he felt moved to visit Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. “To think my family escaped that – that it could have been us,” he said.
He has since seen Rithy Panh’s Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture, which tells Panh’s personal Khmer Rouge survival story using clay figures. “I really loved it. It’s very moving. I’m very impressed with how he uses the craft to craft the story”, he said.
In October, Khaou will revisit Vietnam for the first time for his next project, a film that will explore the repercussions of the Vietnamese-American war on three different characters. The havoc that conflict wreaks upon the lives of ordinary people resonates with Khaou. “It makes identity become this universal thing. Look at the Middle East and Iraq now,” he said.
While he may deny that Lilting is autobiographical, Khaou’s identity as someone affected by conflict and someone who is made up of a patchwork of ethnicities, nationalities and cultural experiences, has certainly given him a nuanced view on the world around him and, in turn, made its mark upon his work.