LFF REVIEW: “A quiet, bittersweet gem” – ‘Monsoon’ (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 4.

“Shy efforts to build connections with the world around him feel tender and real”

Hong Khaou’s second feature opens with an overhead shot of a traffic junction in Ho Chi Minh City. Hundreds of cars, bikes and scooters approach from multiple directions, pushing forward and giving way as they negotiate the road together. It’s a dizzying sight for a viewer; Kit (Henry Golding), a Brit returning to his childhood home for the first time in decades, has the harder task of navigating it. 

Kit has come back to Vietnam for the first time since he left abruptly at the age of six. He’s come with his mother’s ashes – his brother, arriving later, is bringing those of their father. Finding a place to scatter them isn’t as simple as it seems: Kit remarks that he doesn’t recognise the city after so many years spent in the UK. He quickly meets up with his cousin (David Tran), who shares the sadness he felt when Kit and his family left Vietnam so abruptly. It transpires that Kit’s mother and father were persecuted after the unification of the country years earlier, and the family fled to safety. The place Kit returns to has transformed in his absence; Monsoon‘s rendering of modern Ho Chi Minh City is vivid but faithful. The film’s colour palette is slate-grey, the high-rises and endless highways of the city almost blending into the overcast sky. Meanwhile, the noise of city traffic often drowns out scenes altogether. It’s overwhelming, a place for Kit to get lost in. 

Exploring this familiar but strange landscape, Kit quickly bonds with two similarly disaffected individuals. Linh (Molly Harris) is a local girl who works for her family but longs to explore the world. We see in her story the life that Kit could have had under different circumstances, and Harris plays her with a delicate sadness. Meanwhile, Lewis (Parker Sawyers, Southside with You), an American entrepreneur who works in the city, connects with Kit online. Despite an awkward start, they forge a strong physical connection.

As Kit explores his home city, as well as Hanoi, he appears to use sex as a familiar point of reference in an unfamiliar place, a tonic for the grief he’s forced to confront. His apparent gayness is almost incidental to the story, and it’s always refreshing to see a more nuanced kind of LGBT narrative in modern cinema. For Kit, his national identity is an open question, but his sexual identity is settled.

As Kit and Lewis continue to meet, staving off loneliness, we see how they initially withhold the true depth of their connection with Vietnam from one another. On their first meeting at a local bar, Kit lies that he’s never been to Saigon before, and Lewis’ connection to Vietnam turns out to be just as fraught. Director and writer Khaou has an instinct for small elisions of truth like this. The simpler versions of ourselves which we present to ease our passage through life, and to keep from truly connecting to one another, were also illustrated in his breakout hit Lilting.

Henry Golding as Kit brings a wonderful naturalism to the film. It is reminiscent of the travelogue documentaries which Golding used to make before his second career as an actor began: his genuine curiosity at seeing lotus tea being made, or walking through an unfamiliar neighbourhood, never seems insincere. Likewise, his shy efforts to build connections with the world around him feel tender and real. Golding builds Kit into a fully realised character, conveying deep wells of emotions while seeming not to do very much acting at all. 

Monsoon is a quiet, bittersweet gem of a romance, and it’s exciting to see Hong Khaou emerging as one of Britain’s most exciting and consistent directors. His voice, which tells minor-key stories about complicated people, seems to have emerged fully-formed. The narrative doesn’t spell out Kit’s struggle on screen, or hold our hands: it’s defiantly placid. The film’s title could have suggested a climactic outpouring of emotion, a moment of resolution in which Kit tearfully makes peace with his family’s trauma and his own identity in the world. Monsoon isn’t that. As in Lilting, Khaou finds poetry and emotional truth in the things which people communicate to one another without words, and the film ends on a quiet but undeniable leap forward for its characters. Like the urban traffic at the film’s beginning, almost but never quite colliding, it’s implied that Kit has found the tools to help him navigate a chaotic world.

Dir: Hong Khaou

Prod: Tracey O’Riordan

Cast: Henry Golding, Parker Sawyers, Molly Harris, David Tran, Lâm Vissay, Edouard Leo

Release Date: TBD