Henry Golding stars in Hong Khaou's elegant second feature.

By Mary Sollosi
November 13, 2020 at 05:30 PM EST
Credit: Dat VU

There's nary a raindrop in Monsoon, director Hong Khaou's gorgeous second feature; all the weather is internal. Henry Golding stars as Kit, a British Vietnamese man whose family fled to England following the Vietnam War, when he was very little; he returns to Saigon as an adult, after the death of his parents. Hoping to find a missing piece of himself, some ineffable feeling of home, he instead feels like a tourist in his own birth country.

Kit searches — first in Saigon where he spent the first six years in his life, then Hanoi where his parents were from — for a place to scatter his parents’ ashes. Beyond wanting to find “somewhere momentous” (and not “somewhere obvious and tacky,” like he knows his brother would choose), he can’t quite articulate exactly what he’s looking for; he spends the whole film trying to find something he recognizes, even if he’s never actually seen it before.

He finds recognition, a little bit, in Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an American who’s in Saigon to launch a T-shirt company and with whom Kit sparks a romance. Both men were born after the Vietnam War ended, but continue to feel its effects, which reverberated within both their families in different ways, over decades. To the film’s credit, while Kit spends most of the film navigating something of an identity crisis, his sexuality is not part of that — it’s just a simple fact of who he is.

The two actors have immediate, easy chemistry, but in Kit and Lewis’ relationship Monsoon stumbles slightly, losing some of its poeticism in too-neatly establishing Lewis as an American counterpoint to Kit’s experience of Vietnam. (Sawyers’ striking resemblance to Barack Obama, whom he actually played in 2016’s Southside with You, unfortunately contributes to the awkward sense that he’s the film’s U.S. representative.)

There are also some friends, both old and new, whom Kit sees over the course of the film and who tell him (in spare, elegant dialogue) about their own families, the pain they’ve inherited, and the dreams deferred that weigh upon them — all in the aftermath of the devastating war, over before they were born. The specificity with which Khaou portrays this beautiful place, evolving beyond its traumatic history but never forgetting it entirely, is what makes Monsoon so piercing. Saigon especially is wonderfully rendered in both sight and sound, with DP Benjamin Kracun’s graceful camerawork balanced effortlessly against the active rhythms of the city.

Even slightly scruffy and without any Crazy Rich gloss, Golding is magnetic (and unreasonably handsome) as Kit, his understated emotional journey credible and affecting. The film itself shares clear DNA with Khaou’s delicate 2014 debut Lilting in its themes of love, grief, and displacement, and while the filmmaker expands his scope in his lyrical sophomore feature, his restraint here walks a fine line with tasteful detachment. Monsoon could stand to be a little more turbulent, but that doesn’t mean it won't stir something within you. B+

Monsoon is now available on VOD.

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