Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Starring: Henry Golding, Parker Sawyers, Molly Harris, David Tran
Director: Hong Khaou
Director Hong Khaou’s debut Lilting was a critical darling on its release. Exploring the culture clash and subsequent common ground between a British man and the mother of his late Chinese-Cambodian partner, it was a moving portrait that explored the common human experience. Now, Khaou explores similar territory in Monsoon, following a Vietnamese gay man who grew up in the UK returning to Vietnam for the first time.
Kit (Golding) remembers little of his early years in Vietnam. After the death of his parents, he has returned to Saigon with their ashes. As he waits for his brother to arrive, he explores the places he frequented as a child with an old friend (Tran) who is cautious of his long-delayed return. He also meets for a hook-up with American resident Lewis (Sawyers), with whom a romance blossoms and they discuss their mixed feelings toward the country, both from the perspective of the child of a refugee and the child of a soldier from the Vietnam War.
The film hinges on the scars left from this war. Kit’s family fled to the UK to escape it, just as Hong Khaou’s family fled the Khmer Regime in Cambodia. The Vietnam he has returned to is one that has rebuilt and reforged its identity and one Kit struggles to recognise, but the hangover still exists in its people. Lewis feels tremendous guilt on behalf of his nationality, even insisting that he isn’t an American who feels the need to go somewhere and “stick a flag in it”. Each man is uncomfortable because of this wartime legacy, but their discomfort comes solely from within.
The Saigon – and Hanoi – we see is a concrete jungle of high-rise modern architecture, with wide tree-lined boulevards that feel anonymous and blank. Kit stares wistfully at small patches of undeveloped land crowded with ramshackle huts, seeing in them the Vietnam he remembers, but the city’s rebirth is a city arisen from the ashes, even if he can’t see it as such. And the camera struggles to find it too, finding only an uneven middle ground, where the urban sprawl is a sea of mopeds, street vendors and plain modernity. This isn’t the film that shows the Vietnam that the travel industry would want you to see.
The film is slow, dragging its feet as it plods through Kit’s series of encounters. Long sequences observe his surroundings, with big portions of the film just watching him watch this country living. But as interesting as Vietnamese culture is, his experience is a little too pedestrian and the stakes a little too low, meaning that it’s a film without narrative colour, with no variation, tension or pace. And though Golding is instantly likeable as the charming Kit, his lack of intensity or vocal flavour means we’re watching a blank man not articulating what he’s really feeling.
Both Khaou and Golding are stars on the rise, but there’s no doubt that this is neither’s best work. And though it captures that restless statelessness that any traveller will recognise, it doesn’t manage to create a plot strong enough to justify its existence. It’s a character piece through and through, but you’ll find yourself wishing Kit was a just a little more interesting. In fact, it’s Lewis who makes the much bigger impression.
OUT ON 25TH SEPTEMBER 2020 IN CINEMAS AND ON DEMAND ON CURZON HOME CINEMA, RELEASED BY PECCADILLO PICTURES.