LFF 2019: Monsoon Review
Those fortunate enough to have caught British director Hong Khaou’s quietly affecting Lilting back in 2014, will find common ground with his second feature. Monsoon doesn’t pack quite the emotional kick found in his debut - which was driven by two fantastic lead performances – but it deals with some of the same issues, while also showing a different side to an actor who has struggled to convince to date.
It seems a little surprising to see Henry Golding take the lead, given his brief CV has so far lent itself towards more flashier Hollywood fare. His performances in those films show an actor still learning his trade and while some of that comes through in Khaou's drama, this is a role requiring a more laid back approach which Golding mostly seems at ease with. There’s a delicacy to his character, Kit, and it allows him to act on his own terms away from the bells and whistles of big budget filmmaking.
Kit is returning home to his place of birth in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Vietnam, decades after his parents fled to the UK following the reunification of the country in the aftermath of the war. It’s the first time he has stepped foot in Vietnam since he was six-years-old and re-establishing his connection to his homeland doesn’t come easy. Kit’s parents never spoke about life in Saigon and forbade him and his brother to travel there and much has changed in the twenty plus years that have passed.
He’s here to find a ‘momentous’ spot to bury the ashes of his recently deceased mother and when speaking to second cousin Lee (David Tran) he says he “feels like a tourist” because so much of the city has been modernised beyond recognition. For the director this is something of a personal journey, as his own parents fled a war-torn Cambodia to raise him in Britain when he was a young boy. Monsoon spends a lot of time observing Kit coming to terms with his sense of displacement, often seen amongst looking a little lost amongst the hectic streets filled with cars and scooters hurtling along their way.
The subtlety that characterised Lilting reveals itself again here and seems to be Khaou’s preferred style, leaning more towards the thoughts possessing his characters rather than the words being spoken. That said, the dialogue between Kit and Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an American living in the city where his soldier father served during the war, adds some unexpected historical context. A little more meat on their romantic relationship in particular would have helped crystalise Kit’s inner turmoil further, but their connection remains frustratingly just out of reach.
Khaou also gives thought to the next generation in Vietnam who are still tied to family traditions that are no longer thriving in the modern day economy. Linh’s (Molly Harris) family go through a detailed process to manually produce their lotus tea and while dutiful, she remains emotionally indebted to them for the money spent on funding her education. It’s a feeling shared by many second generation children and although Kit isn’t burdened with those same expectations, he no doubt wishes he had such an innate route back into his culture.
The general consensus surrounding Monsoon appears to be it is a little too subtle for its own good. It’s hard to disagree and there’s a feeling Khaou is treading too lightly - perhaps out of respect for a story and culture that isn’t his entirely own - without getting to the heart of Kit’s journey. Which is not to say this isn’t a film that many won’t be able to relate to, as the themes are universal regardless of the location. At 85 minutes it paces itself well and offers a quiet and contemplative reflection on one man grappling to unearth his own identity.
Monsoon plays in competition at this year's London Film Festival.
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