“They went through so much to leave here, and now you bring them back.” This line perfectly encapsulates the pervasive themes of dislocation, cultural displacement and mourning that are imbued in Monsoon, the second feature film by Cambodian-British director Hong Khaou of Lilting fame.
Kit, played by Henry Golding, has returned to Vietnam for the first time since his parents fled to the UK during reunification when he was a child, with the purpose of returning his parents ashes to their homeland. Having long forgotten his Vietnamese, along with many childhood memories, Kit may as well be a tourist in Vietnam.
Like Kit, Khaou also fled Southeast Asia as a child with his family, in his case Cambodia, and grew up in Britain, which lends a strong sense of authenticity to the film. The distinctiveness in Khaou’s screenplay lies in how Kit’s journey in Vietnam does not consist of the usual steps of rediscovery and coming to terms with the past while attempting to assimilate back into his homeland. While one might initially expect that standard trajectory from such a film, this film instead offers us a pleasant surprise in the form of a subtle, yet fascinating, portrayal of Kit’s confusion and feelings of unfamiliarity.
Stories of Kit’s life and his past are gradually delivered throughout the film, which make for a potentially challenging watch at the beginning, but offer the chance for much thought towards the end of the film about the intricacies of identities. He is constantly confronted with situations that set him apart as a foreigner, subtly conjuring up possible alternative histories and paths out of his control had his family stayed in Vietnam.
The complexity of having left one’s homeland is explored in Kit’s relationship with a family friend, Lee (played by David Tran). Lee’s family, unlike Kit’s, failed to flee Vietnam, and his strong connection to both the country and their childhood memories together is juxtaposed against Kit’s conflicted sense of identity. Their interactions are uneasy but long, and it is through these interactions that one sees the captivating interplay between what is said and what remains unspoken.
Credit: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
The best moments of the film are those that allow the audience to interpret the scenes themselves. The most memorable of these is when Kit travels on a 30-hour-long train trip to Hanoi from Ho Chi Minh City. In the few minutes of the train sequence, Kit’s different identities are brought together in sharp focus, and Golding’s sensitive portrayal of Kit, along with his body language, reveal a lot with few words.
The theme of connection to past pain and incomprehension about identities extends to the other characters in the film, all of whom are grappling with their connections to the past through their families. Lewis (played by Parker Sawyers) is an African-American that Kit meets who is settled in Vietnam, and brings an American perspective to the history of the Vietnam War. Kit befriends Linh (played by Molly Harris), a young Vietnamese struggling to accept that her ambitions are incompatible with the expectations and traditions of her family.
Monsoon proves Golding’s versatility as an actor in a role that is totally different from his breakout role in the light-hearted charm of Crazy Rich Asians. He manages to successfully capture the contrast between Kit’s outwardly quiet countenance with the inner chaos in his mind. The camera is often focused on his face as he observes the people and places around him, and Golding succeeds in conveying Kit’s thoughts in quiet scenes.
With beautiful cinematography by Benjamin Kracun, Vietnam is captured in a compelling way in this film, poignantly illustrating a country that is actively progressing, whilst its people may remain tied to its past. The bustling city of Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as the characters refer to it) is portrayed with a deep sense of authenticity, with cars and mopeds manoeuvring around one another effortlessly in synchronised chaos, with the constant echo of horns blaring in the background. The film captures busy streets, markets and apartment blocks with detailed composition, much like photographs, and succeeds in showing Kit as a foreigner in his own homeland.
Monsoon is a meticulously crafted expression of the migration experience, as well as the difficulties in rooting oneself within a dynamic environment. This fascinating film about grappling with identities against a vibrant backdrop of constant change and transformation is a complex drama lying beneath what appears to be a rather quiet film.
Monsoon premiered at the 54th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in June 2019 and had a limited release at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.
Edited by Andriani Scordellis, Film Editor, and Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor