▶ Monsoon is screening in UK cinemas, streaming on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema and available to buy on Peccadillo Player and iTunes from 25 September, and on Blu-ray and DVD from 2 November 2020.
The rains never arrive in Hong Khaou’s Monsoon, a drama of delicate restraint about a man who returns to Vietnam nearly three decades after his family fled the country for the UK. The title’s a kind of red herring, Khaou tells me over Skype on a Saturday morning in August. “I was very aware that [the film] isn’t going to be set during the monsoon. It was more a metaphor about the feelings that arise when you go back to your homeland.”
It’s an enigmatic title that neatly captures the spirit of the film: its quiet subversions of the immigrant homecoming drama; its preference for unsaid gestures over words. Khaou’s debut feature, Lilting (2013), starring Ben Whishaw, explored the relationship between an elderly Cambodian woman and the male lover of her recently deceased son, as they connect tentatively over chasms of language and grief.
Monsoon takes a different approach to a similar theme. Kit (an extraordinarily ruminative Henry Golding, cast in the film before his star-making turn in Crazy Rich Asians) arrives in Vietnam to scatter his mother’s ashes and finds himself in a place that feels familiar, yet utterly alien.
As Kit visits old haunts, Khaou and his cinematographer Benjamin Kracun employ long, still shots, often capturing the character’s reflection in windows and mirrors, emphasising his isolation even in the cacophonous urban spaces of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Vietnam has irrevocably changed, and, like the monsoon of the title, the sense of belonging Kit seeks never arrives.
“There is a very romantic idea that we need to go back to our past and investigate it in order to go forward. But for a lot of people who don’t have memories of [their past], it is really hard,” says Khaou. These are personal themes for the director: he was born in Cambodia, but his family fled the country during the Khmer Rouge era and spent eight years in Vietnam before moving to the UK.
Like Kit in the film, he has grappled with his parents’ reluctance to discuss the war that he never experienced, but which has shaped his life. “When we ask my mum [about it], she gets very emotional and just doesn’t talk. But it’s their way of liberating you, because to build something new and exciting in the West they had to forget these past traumas.”
For Khaou, the film became an act not so much of remembering, but of confronting the complexity of present-day Vietnam and countering the popular depictions of the country he’d grown up with in the West. “People who are not from Vietnam constantly associate the country with the conflict. But there’s a generation of young kids there who don’t care about it. They idolise the West.”
Monsoon captures Vietnam as a confluence of the past, present and future, with Kit representing its transitory present, while the Vietnamese characters he meets gesture at its future: his cousin (David Tran), who owns a mobile-phone shop; and Linh (Molly Harris), a guide at an art gallery, who wants to branch out from her family’s ancestral tea-making trade.
The war and its legacy make their way into the film through Lewis (Parker Sawyers), a Black American man Kit meets in Ho Chi Minh City via a dating app. Over fumbling conversations that gradually become more candid, Lewis reveals to Kit that his father was deeply scarred by his experience of fighting in the war and later being abandoned by the government. The exchange hits harder given its unspoken subtext – of Black Americans’ fraught relationship with nationalism in the 1960s, brought to the fore recently in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods.
“In the early drafts of the script, Lewis was white,” says Hong. “And his father is very much a victim of the war, in the way that Kit’s parents are also victims. But as I was writing, I realised that that narrative felt very familiar. I grew up on a diet of American Vietnam War films, and that’s been the dominant perspective [on the war]. I didn’t feel like I needed to show the white American as being a victim – it’s just been done for so long.”
In yet another deft subversion, Kit’s sexuality is never discussed or declared in the film or turned into a source of tension. “The story was always about a sense of identity, but I didn’t want [the characters] to carry any baggage of their queer identity. They know who they are, they are completely comfortable in their skin. I felt it was time to write something like that.”
Gradually, Kit’s relationship with Lewis becomes the film’s focus, taking Monsoon in a surprising direction. What begins as a drama of diasporic reckoning ends as a love story – or, as Khaou puts it, a story of two “foreigners in a foreign land, finding a sense of hope”.