British-Cambodian writer-director Hong Khaou follows-up his delicate debut Lilting with another elegant study of cultural alienation and displacement as a young man born in Vietnam but raised in the UK returns home after three decades
Can you ever go home again? That’s the sentiment examined at the heart of Monsoon, the delicate second feature from Cambodian-British filmmaker Hong Khaou. The film opens on a high, overhead shot observing the beautiful chaos of a busy junction in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), Vietnam. Hoards of brightly coloured scooters thread around oncoming cars like schools of fish speeding around bigger, clumsier species. Lost among this throng is Henry Golding’s Kit, a Vietnam native who left Saigon three decades ago, aged six, when his parents fled the country for Britain post-Reunification.
Kit has returned to find a spot to scatter his parents' ashes. He’s looking for “somewhere momentous”, although he soon realises his search will not be simple. His memories of his early life are vague, to say the least, and the old spots he does remember have either been Westernised beyond recognition in this rapidly modernising city, or fallen into squalor and ruin. Stuck for inspiration, he even tries taking bus tours – after all, he says, he “feels like a tourist”.
Benjamin Kračun’s camera will often hang back, observing in wide shot Kit confusedly wandering the streets with Google maps open on his phone, the look of recollection perceptible on his face as he comes upon a building he hazily recalls from childhood. Around him, the streets are a buzz of activity as locals bustle past, getting on with their day. Kit’s unfamiliarity with his surroundings are echoed in his stiff, overly formal interactions. Meeting a friend from childhood he’ll say he has “good remembrances” of playing together, while later he says the prospect of visiting Vietnam was “forboden” by his parents. It’s as if his conversations with his oldest friend have been scrambled through a translator.
Kit does find a kindred spirit in Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an African-American entrepreneur with whom he begins a passionate romance after hooking up via a dating app. Like Kit, Lewis feels uneasy in Vietnam. His father never recovered from doing three tours their during the war, and while he may insist his T-shirt business is “contributing to the country’s growing economy”, he and Kit both know he’s in Vietnam for the cheap labour. Kit also meets another lost soul in Linh (Molly Harris), a Vietnam native who wants to break away from her family’s struggling lotus tea business, another casualty of the country’s rampant modernisation.
As was the case in Khaou’s elegant debut Lilting, his new film is inspired by the director’s own biography. His family too emigrated from Vietnam to England, having first fled the Khmer Rouge when Khaou was just a baby. As such, it’s the small interactions – the awkward reunions with the friends Kit’s family left behind or the hesitant small talk with strangers who approach Kit assuming he’s a local – that resonate and most ring true. You don’t need to be an immigrant returning home to recognise Khaou's keen sense of the loneliness of a traveller in a foreign land or the discombobulating effects it has on your mind and body.
It’s in this respect that Golding impresses. So blithe and well put together in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians, here he’s crumpled and tentative, the matinee idol looks dented by his characters existential malaise. In a less sophisticated movie, Kit would find some catharsis on his journey. Monsoon is closer to reality: the journey simply goes on.
Monsoon is released 25 Sep by Peccadillo Pictures; the film's world premiere took place at the 54rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival