Monsoon first look: Hong Khaou’s Saigon drama charts undercurrents of migration and mourning

Still waters run deep in the Cambodian-British director’s second feature, as Henry Golding plays a man in limbo, returning to a home he no longer recognises.

Ben Nicholson
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Henry Golding as Kit in Monsoon

Henry Golding as Kit in Monsoon

An empty crossing appears in a static birds-eye-view shot before the lights turn green and traffic from begins to stream into the composition. Cars and mopeds navigate around one another likes eddies and riffles in a flowing watercourse, and drifting along in the current is Kit (Henry Golding). Born in Vietnam but raised in the UK, Kit is in Saigon for the first time since his parents fled after reunification when he was eight years old, arriving as a tourist to return his parents’ ashes to their homeland. “They went through so much to leave here and now you bring them back,” asserts an old family friend, expressing in words the delicately observed themes of mourning, dislocation and conflicted identity that enrich Cambodian-British director Hong Khaou’s contemplative second feature film Monsoon.

Those that were enamoured with his poignant debut Lilting will find much that is familiar here. Kit is a gay man who, while clearly very comfortable with his sexuality, has to reconcile this one identity with the limbo of being an immigrant in his current home and a stranger in his former one. “I hardly recognise this country any more,” he laments, having previously had to admit with embarrassment that his Vietnamese is not so good nowadays, and he’s in need of help translating.

Monsoon feels like a precisely considered expression of the untethered experience of migration – undoubtedly owing much of its pin-sharp observation to Khaou’s own personal history – and the difficulty in anchoring yourself when your life and environs seem to be a constantly roiling sea. Hardly any of this is explicitly communicated; instead, themes slowly accumulate through snatched moments of hotel-room Skype calls, parcelled-out exposition and silent wanders through old neighbourhoods.

Hong has the same confidence in Golding that he had in Ben Whishaw’s Richard in Lilting – that which allows them space and silence to just be. Golding is afforded the opportunity to do something strikingly different from the enjoyable chatty charm of Crazy Rich Asians, instead leaving him with little to say for long stretches of time. In the opening few moments, the only words we hear from him are a request for the Wi-Fi password and yet it takes no time at all to understand who Kit is. The camera often lingers on his face as he observes, with Golding regularly conveying precisely what he’s thinking in wordless scenes that could easily lapse into to a broody malaise but never do. Benjamin Kračun’s camerawork captures him in mid- and wide-shots, emphasising his position in his surroundings, or shoots him through windows, a recurring cinematic motif to signify isolation.

The closest Golding does get to charming is in a series of romantic and sexual encounters with Lewis (Parker Sawyers) who comes with his own set of conflicted identities – he’s an African-American ex-pat living in Vietnam where he father served during the war. Their unfolding relationship is very watchable but feels additionally complicated by their family histories. “I’m not one of those Yanks,” claims Lewis after Kit questions why he would want to remember the Vietnam War with pride. It’s a political undercurrent that courses through Monsoon, further muddying the waters of the multivalent drama beneath a serene surface.

 

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