This is the debut feature film for Hong Khaou, and being of Cambodian descent, I imagine this movie may be semi-autobiographical, though that is obviously pure speculation. This interesting little film (running on an insanely low budget of 12,000 pounds if I recall correctly) is about a Chinese-Cambodian elderly woman, Junn (veteran actress Pei-Pei Chang), who has just lost her son Kai, not long after he put her into a home. He was gay, but could never bring himself to tell his mother. This was the reason she ended up in the home and not living with him and his boyfriend Richard (Ben Whishaw). When Richard enters the fold initially he seems like a stranger, at least as far as Junn is concerned, and to make it harder, he can’t communicate with Junn as she can speak 8 different dialects, but refuses to learn English despite living in the UK. Despite their differences, despite the overwhelming obstacles to hurdle, Richard is not intending on giving up trying to talk to his deceased partner’s mother. They share the same pain, but Junn has no idea of this. Since Junn doesn’t know about the same-sex relationship her son was having, Richard’s job becomes at least twice as tough, as he has to act as Kai’s ‘best friend’, trying to connect with Junn that they both are sharing the same misery, the same loneliness and sense of loss after losing a loved one.
Along the way Junn meets a gentleman who is also a resident at the home. Playing an amusingly dry old codger, Peter Bowles as Alan is smitten by Junn, yet they have no way of truly communicating. Richard rectifies this by hiring a translator, which helps both Alan and Richard as it opens up a dialogue between the different parties, for better or worse. Richard continues to go to endless lengths to try and communicate and help Junn overcome her son’s death, as unwilling as she seems, as well as trying to help negotiate a possible relationship with Alan so he can see her happy. And so the story goes, moving from this premise into emotional territory where each character’s decision is not easy, and someone as stubborn as Junn makes life difficult for Richard and the translator he has to help smooth the process… Which doesn’t go as smoothly as planned.
This film is extremely depressing at points and heartwarming at others. It is nice to see a film with a real heart without dipping into overly sentimental scenes. The true unforgettable message that this film gave me was how it illustrated how culture can truly alienate us; from loved ones, from people who want to help. But at the same time, it highlights elements of the human condition that transcend culture, such as family, music, or the unmistakable grin of happiness. I didn’t think I’d enjoy this as much as I did, it isn’t my type of film really. But I loved it. Probably also because I have seen how fucked making that decision to put someone in a home really is.
If you aren’t looking for action, and are interested in watching a more thought-provoking movie that really will pull at your emotions, check this one out. The absurdly low budget is not noticeable at all, especially given the quality of the production, from the perfect sequence of scenes, to the subtle but interesting photography work and the minimal but effective soundtrack.
This isn’t a film that I will revisit immediately, unlike many others than have been released this year. But I know that a time will come where I suddenly will have to put this on. It is a powerful, emotional film that subtly comments on the differences of cultures and/or language, the stigma that is still attached to same-sex couples, especially among older, more ‘traditional’ people, but most importantly, a few key scenes show us that differences in culture, in language, in beliefs, can be transcended, and no matter what the barriers between communication may be, humanity can prevail.