Director: Hong Khaou Starring: Henry Golding, Parker Sawyers, David Tran, Molly Harris Running Time: 85 minutes
When it comes to culture, identity and family, it’s a given that feelings are going to be complex, even contradictory. Add guilt and grief to the mix and you can get a potent stew of melancholia brewing – a recipe that director Hong Khaou knows very well, and well enough to show that there can be hopeful, joyful moments amongs the stinging pains and numb dejection.
In 2014’s Lilting, the director explored these ideas overtly, with Ben Whishaw playing a bereaved man drawn to connect with his deceased boyfriend’s mother despite a language barrier and her unawareness of her son’s sexuality. Like that film, his latest Monsoon draws from the director’s personal experiences, from a distance. Both are stories with queer leading characters, providing a lived-in perspective with a focus beyond the usual coming of age/romance/tragic narratives. Both are informed to some degree also by Khaou’s experience as an immigrant – the director and his family migrated to Britain from Cambodia when he was eight years old, and Kit, the central character of Monsoon, similarly left South East Asia for England while still in single digits, in his case Vietnam.
The death of his mother is what prompts Kit’s return to Saigon, over 30 years since his family fled post-war chaos. Kit, played by Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians rising fame, is to pick out the right spot to scatter his parents’ ashes now that they’re both gone. Returning them home is the idea, spiritually speaking, but it’s a complicated plan emotionally for Kit from the get-go. ‘Home’ is a place that he hardly remembers and that his parents hardly remembered fondly, their final resting place somewhere they fought desperately to get away from. The task requires him connecting with the country and his past for essentially the first time, rapidly growing roots, kick starting beginnings in order to facilitate an ending. Despite a brisk pace at 85 minutes, Monsoon presents ideas like this with a gentle contemplation.
Golding’s performance is a massive help in this regard. He has layered grief into a performance before playing the moody homme fatale in A Simple Favour and has definite presence (and movie star good looks), but Moonsoon’s mixed emotions present a more subtle acting challenge. Kit isn’t fully sure how he feels in many scenes; straining, sometimes, to feel some things specifically; frustrated when visiting childhood landmarks fails to prompt an inner reaction, awkward among family he barely knows and can only speak to in English. He’s a fish out of water, but Khaou’s writing mostly uses this to get Kit questioning himself, exploring emotions and ideas, rather than for broad comedy or big monologues. ‘Unsure’ and ‘a bit weird’ aren’t the kind of showy acting tics that lead to big awards, they show subtler skills and Golding pulls them off believably and with empathy. In a similar vein to his director, Golding left Malaysia from a young age, and there is a maturity and interiority to his performance.
Khaou deserves credit for avoiding easy answers, packing an impressive amount of layers into a relatively short and outwardly simple story. Vietnam isn’t just alien to Kit because of his absence, but because it’s being changing too while he’s been away; modernising and expanding. Khaou and cinematographer capture with some gorgeous snapshots, the traffic of Saigon captured from above, bars buzzing with energy, excitement and hormones, cold and clean art galleries that distance themselves from the typical picture of the countryside while also drawing from them, also aiming to align themselves aesthetically with the scene in the West.
The locations say a lot, but so do the conversations happening in them. Kit connects with a series of well-sketched side characters, used to tease him out despite his understandably reserved front. Lee (David Tran), a cousin who stayed behind, asks some of the hard questions begged by Kit’s return, and unbeknownst to Kit is expecting a few in return. Linh (Molly Harris) is a new friend in the local art scene, who helps broaden the perspective both on where the country came from and where she wishes it would go a bit faster. The film is most drawn to a romance Kit tentatively pursues with American Lewis (Parker Sawyers, so American in fact, that he may be best known for playing Obama). Lewis is self-conscious of his own lack of self-awareness, another example of the film’s complexities, he knows he’s supposed to walk around some egg shells, but isn’t sure which ones. Calling the Vietnam War one the US “couldn’t be proud of”, Kit retorts “why would you want to be proud of it?”, and it feels like a point of view that’s new to both of them. Lewis isn’t just a caricature of a tourist though, the son of a solider, he’s working through something very confusing on the inside, one element of a connection between the characters that feels understated, but vibrant.
Open, honest and curious, there is a lot to like in Monsoon. It’s a smart and subtle take on the immigrant experience, coming from a genuine and thoughtful creative place. Torn loyalties and memories find themselves tied together onto a surer path, making for a story of heartening optimism.(4 / 5)