The long-awaited follow up to his 2014 microbudget drama Lilting, one of Britain’s most exciting and interesting directors Hong Khaou returns to the themes of longing and loneliness of the first-generation immigrant experience.
Kit (Henry Golding) has returned to Vietnam, a country he last saw when he was six years old, to search for a place to scatter his parents’ ashes. With his brother and his family due to join him in a few weeks, he travels through Saigon — the place of his birth — and Hanoi, in search for the perfect place to lay his parents to rest. While there he meets and falls for Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an African-American business man whose father fought during the Vietnam War, and reconnects with childhood friend Lee (David Tran), one of his few personal connections left to the memories he left behind.
Khaou explores the sense of disconnect between Kit and his former homeland; unable to recognise the city that is ever changing, or to speak the language, he occupies a hinterland where nothing ever quite feels like home. He “feels like a tourist” as he visits his former home, and the market where him and Lee used to roam as children, and a clumsy exchange of gifts to Lee’s family (including a water bottle, Kit emphasises, that filters water and makes it drinkable) highlights his palpable unease at being thrust back into a country that no longer remembers him.
The slow and sweeping camera work reinforces the alienation of Kit in a country that both is and isn’t his home. Vietnam is changing rapidly, with old childhood areas concreted over and new building springing high up into the sky. Kit is often alone, shot from a distance, in a crowded bar as people move around him he stares off into space, searching.
While Henry Golding has starred in several films throughout the past two years, Monsoon is the first to truly give him a chance to shine in the main role. The journey Kit is undertaking is entirely personal, and the glimpses we get into his psyche during one-sided video calls with his brother, or during conversations with Lewis reveal a man who is unmoored — quitting his job back in London for reasons that are never fully discussed — trying to discover himself in a world that feels so different. As with Ben Whishaw’s performance in Lilting, Khaou’s talent for coaxing out a tenderness from his actors is clear, revealing itself in the quiet moments with devastating effect. Golding’s micro expressions of anger,or grief, or sadness, have the power to hit deeply in a film that eschews melodrama for subtlety. It is with a desperate sadness that Kit asks what the point is of a photograph he has taken of himself standing outside his parent’s old house in Hanoi, his voice cracking ever so slightly before the emotion is pulled back in.
It truly is Golding’s film, and the portrait of a man, not broken but perhaps slightly chipped, whose search for belonging, and closure, brings him a chance to discover a new relationship with Vietnam and those who still remain.
Monsoon is out in select UK and Ireland cinemas now, it will be available on VOD in the US on November 13th
by Rose Dymock