Hong Khaou on Monsoon
Hong Khaou discusses his graceful second feature Monsoon, which sees Crazy Rich Asians beefcake Henry Golding play a Vietnamese-born Londoner returning to the country of his childhood but struggling to find a connection
Monsoon, the poignant second feature from British-Cambodian filmmaker Hong Khaou, isn’t set during the current pandemic, but that doesn’t mean its characters aren’t wearing masks. Take Kit (played by Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding), a 36-year-old Vietnamese-born Londoner who’s travelled to Ho Chi Minh City to find a suitably “momentous” location at which to scatter his parents’ ashes.
He is returning to his hometown but it feels like a foreign country; he stumbles around the city in a daze, stopping by his old neighbourhood and spots that were special to him as a child, but too much time has passed (his family moved to Britain when he was six) and these areas have either been Westernised beyond recognition or fallen into squalor. At the same time, people he meets in the street address him in Vietnamese, assuming he’s a local, but Kit’s mother tongue has long slipped from his memory. Rarely has the phrase “you can’t go home again” felt more apt.
It’s a feeling the director knows all too well. He was born in Cambodia but spent his early years in Vietnam after his parents fled their home when the Khmer Rouge seized power. “I don't have memories of my childhood that much anymore either,” Khaou told me at last year’s London Film Festival. “I feel very much British and that I very much have assimilated and integrated, but obviously my mum hasn't, so I still have ties there.”
Identity was also the chief theme of Khaou’s debut, Lilting, which centred on the uneasy relationship between a Cambodian-Chinese woman who’s lived in the UK for decades but never picked up the language, and the English partner of her recently deceased son, whom the mother didn’t know was gay.
Around 15 minutes into the film we discover Kit too is gay, when he starts discussing the hookup app Grindr with Lewis, an American man with whom he’s having a beer in a bar, and it becomes clear they’re on a first date. While Kit is clearly uneasy about his national identity, he wears his gay identity more lightly. “One thing I was very conscious of in Monsoon was that I wanted Lewis and Kit to be gay, but I wanted to celebrate that, right?” says Khaou. “In that I didn't want them to have any of the baggage of being gay. And I felt maybe, you know, we're at a point where we can start doing films like that.”
In a way, the city to which Kit is returning is also going through an identity crisis. No one calls Ho Chi Minh by its official moniker, which was given to the city in honour of the communist leader of the same name at the end of the Vietnam War, but by its previous one, Saigon. And as Kit searches for a spot to find his ashes, he’s continually confronted by two Saigons: one shackled by tradition and set firmly in the past, the other focused on the future.
“When I went back to Vietnam, it was so different," says Khaou. "It's this really odd but incredible country where it's incredibly poor and at the same time is insanely Western and capitalistic and aspirational. And you have some young kids who are kind of caught between that. We talk about the gentrification of cities, you know, of London or San Francisco or whatever, but Ho Chi Minh is very much going through that and a lot of these incredible, old colonial buildings have been just demolished for the new Metro or luxury hotel or whatever – it's quite sad actually.”
What makes both Lilting and Monsoon such joys to watch is that Khaou plays with these themes of identity in subtle, almost imperceptible ways, with a character’s glance or a camera position saying more in any given scene than the dialogue necessarily. A perfect example of this is Monsoon’s arresting opening, which shows a high overhead shot of Kit sitting in a taxi at a busy junction in Ho Chi Minh. “Initially you just see cars, so I wanted to open the film with this feeling that you could be anywhere in the Western world,” Khaou says of the opening shot. “And then as the frame pulls back, you realize, with the number of mopeds on the road, you might not be in the West, it might be somewhere in the Far East.
“The idea was always, you're seeing something but you don't quite know what it is; it'll take you two seconds to catch up. And that's something we do throughout the film.” In other words, the framing and camera position keeps you, the viewer, in the same mindset as Kit – slightly discombobulated and trying to get to grips with your surroundings.
So much of the film simply plays out on Golding as Kit as we observe the psychological separation he feels from the hustle and bustle of his surroundings. It’s a nuanced, brilliant performance. “We spent a lot of time in casting, getting Kit right, whoever plays him,” Khaou explains. In his previous films, A Simple Favor and rom-com hit Crazy Rich Asians, Golding’s characters were charm personified. Here, the British-Malaysian actor's matinee-idol looks are dented by his character's existential malaise.
“I really made Henry jump through a lot of hoops for the role,” Khaou says sheepishly. “When we cast him, we'd heard that he had done those two films, but we weren't allowed to watch them. But it was always going to take time to cast: this character is going back to a country carrying a lot of history and weight on the shoulders, and we had to find somebody really good. But you're right, having now seen Crazy Rich Asians, I can’t believe it’s the same guy.”
Monsoon is released 25 Sep by Peccadillo Pictures