M, 85 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
The personal histories of two of the key creatives behind Monsoon, writer-director Hong Khaou and lead actor Henry Golding, make them uniquely qualified to tell this story. Monsoon explores displacement and cultural homelessness, a growing problem in the world today.
Both the filmmaker and the lead performer in this quiet, understated story of homecoming were uprooted from their homes in Asia when under 10 years of age. Golding, of mixed cultural heritage, moved from Malaysia to Surrey as a young kid. Khaou, of Cambodian origin, fled the Khmer Rouge with his family and lived in Vietnam before migrating to Britain.
Monsoon is their story of a young British man, Kit (Golding, the sleek, cool dude from Crazy Rich Asians) who returns to his homeland, Vietnam, only to find himself a tourist in the land of his birth, a stranger in a strange land. It is his first visit since he left, over 30 years ago.
Kit’s family fled Vietnam after the war. Most refugee families who had made it to Hong Kong opted to settle in places like Canada and Australia, but his parents chose England. Why so? He remembers that his mother had admired the Queen, because she seemed nice and polite, and it must therefore follow that the rest of England was too.
Now at last, after quitting his job in digital animation, he will return. There is a specific task to perform. The box he carries with him contains his mother’s ashes. His brother, who is bringing their father’s ashes, will join him soon. Before Henry (Lam Vissay) and wife and young family arrive, Kit is free to roam and explore on his own for a while.
Anyone who has visited Vietnam, and that goes for the 350,000-plus Australians who would visit Vietnam each year, will be familiar with the sights. The swirling swarms of motorcycles, the lively streets, the contrast of old Vietnam with the new. But Kit has booked a room in a high-rise hotel in Saigon so characterless he has to buy a couple of plants at the market to keep him company.
In the scene where a young staffer tells Kit about the hotel amenities in French-accented English, Kit responds in his British version. Two young ethnic Vietnamese speaking to each other in English is kinda droll.
During his visit to the southern capital, Kit connects with an old childhood friend, Lee (David Tran) for whom he has bought simple gifts, including a water filter bottle for which Lee has absolutely no need.
If the gaffe appears to drive a wedge between the two young men it doesn’t explain the uncomfortable, wary look on Lee’s face. Although this is eventually explained, I found aspects of performance in Monsoon rather stilted overall.
Monsoon is most at east with its travelogue sequences. In the attention to ambience in the long takes in widescreen of the cityscapes of Saigon and Hanoi, in which Kit cuts a solitary figure in the frame.
On a gay hook-up, Kit meets a lanky American, Lewis (Parker Sawyers), the son of a Vietnam vet. It transpires, that the young Black American is on an intense emotional journey of his own. He has inherited the guilt of a father who served three tours during the ‘American War’, and although nevertheless accepted as a Yank, his nationality does have a downside.
Lewis is in Vietnam for pragmatic and hard-nosed business reasons. On one level, he is there to capitalize on ‘cheap labour’ and ‘contribute to an expanding economy’, but he also takes an interest in the culture. After their one-night stand, Kit and Lewis unexpectedly meet each other again on an art tour.
The tour guide, Linh (Molly Harris), has her own backstory, and it adds another dimension to the fractured lines of the jigsaw that is modern Vietnam. Her parents want her to take over the family business making traditional lotus tea. She cannot see the sense in such a laborious process for a beverage that only old people drink.
In very different ways, Kit, Lewis, and Linh feel the weight of history and expectation that they have inherited in modern Vietnam.
It makes for quite an interesting journey, though Monsoon is studied and sombre. I missed the vitality and go-ahead energy of the vibrant Vietnamese people.
First published in the Canberra Times on 22 November 2020