Two of this year’s more acclaimed international gay-themed films, Tomasz Wasilewski’s Floating Skyscrapers and Hong Khaou’s Lilting, are now available in the US thanks to their current DVD and/or theatrical release. Both spin bittersweet stories of thwarted love, in one case due to cultural constraints and in the other to premature death. While neither makes for light viewing, they serve as significant steps in the ongoing evolution of two talented young filmmakers.
Floating Skyscrapers, from Poland, is the story of a talented but sexually-conflicted young swimmer, Kuba (the photogenic Mateusz Banasiuk). Though beholden to his devoted girlfriend, Sylvia (Marta Nieradkiewicz), and his controlling mother, Kuba regularly fools around with other guys at the pool complex where he trains. Trouble begins to brew once Kuba develops stronger feelings for the openly gay Michal (Bartosz Gelner), an attraction that isn't lost on Sylvia. Sadly, what initially seems promising — with Kuba confessing "Man, I adore you" to Michal in one of the film's sexier scenes — doesn't end well for the pair.
There is no shortage of man-flesh on display in Floating Skyscrapers, given its swim meet setting. More than that, the film is perceptive (much is said/conveyed during largely dialogue-free scenes) and well-photographed, comprised of numerous tracking and POV shots from moving vehicles that give viewers the distinct feeling the characters are being carefully observed. A funny coming-out-over-dinner scene is also featured, and the film's enigmatic title is explained toward the end.
Writer-director Wasilewski depicts his native country as a still far-from-tolerant or accepting place when it comes to LGBT people, as the potent ending makes especially clear. I wouldn't plan a trip to Poland in the near future, but I do recommend watching Floating Skyscrapers (on DVDfrom TLA Releasing/Canteen Outlaws) as well as seeing what Wasilewski does next.
Another country known for not having a spirit of openness toward its LGBT citizens is Cambodia. This supplies the intimate East-West conflict at the heart of Lilting, now playing theatrically in Los Angeles and New York courtesy of Strand Releasing. Openly gay actor Ben Whishaw (who plays Q in Skyfall and the upcoming James Bond films) stars as Richard, a young British man grieving the recent death of his partner, Kai (Andrew Leung, seen in flashbacks and "hallucination" scenes). Kai's Cambodian-born mother, Junn (Cheng Pei-pei, better known as the villainous Jade in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), resides in an assisted living home outside London and doesn't speak any English. This doesn't prevent her, however, from finding romance with a fellow resident who doesn't speak Cambodian.
Motivated by his desire to keep a connection to Kai alive, Richard begins to visit Junn. She first ignores him but slowly begins to indulge Richard, especially once he employs a translator for her to better communicate with her boyfriend. But Junn becomes resistant, and sometimes downright angry, whenever Richard mentions details about the true nature of his relationship with her late son. With time and understanding, though, they eventually overcome their differences and connect.
Lilting is beautifully acted by Cheng and Whishaw and is often genuinely moving. To its detriment, it is very slow-paced and I found myself increasingly frustrated by Richard's tiptoeing approach the longer it goes on. One could say the film is very Asian in style, which is appropriate given writer-director Hong Khaou's own nationality and cultural upbringing. To fully appreciate Lilting demands patience, something admittedly lacking in the western culture of which I am a product/victim.
Floating Skyscrapers: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.