Hong Khaou’s second film ‘Monsoon’ follows on from the themes of grief, cultural identity, and belonging of his first feature ‘Lilting‘. While also charting a different path to his debut feature. As he explores the death of a parent and the need for second-generation children to discover their cultural identity and heritage. The director’s trademark sensitivity and storytelling, matched with sublime cinematography and nuanced performances. Creating a film that feels almost autobiographical in construct, with an air of documentary-like realism sitting at its heart.
Kit (Henry Golding) is in Vietnam for the first time since he was pulled away aged eight. His parents having fled the country following the devastating war with America. While building a new life in the U.K that barely mentioned the family’s cultural heritage.
Arriving a few weeks before his older brother, Kit settles into Saigon, the city of his birth, the ashes of his mother held close. His mission, the discovery of a suitable place to scatter his late mother in the country of both his and her birth. However, for Kit, the journey back to his home country also provides him with the opportunity to reconnect. Discovering a culture and history lost in the mists of his childhood.
The journey begins with Kit reuniting with his distant cousin Lee (David Tran). Both men’s lives having taken starkly different trajectories in the years since they played in Saigon as children. And while Kit desperately searches for memories and connections to the city of his birth, he ultimately remains a tourist. His cultural identity sitting between a western upbringing and a city he barely recognises. His sexual orientation the only stabilising part of his identity, in a country distant to that of his birth.
As Kit roams the city, he meets a local business person and designer Lewis (Parker Sawyers). The sparks of a possible romance providing the only real comfort for Kit, as he travels in search of his lost ancestry. While Lewis, a black American also traverses the challenges of his American identity. In a country where a history of war and conflict interfaces with newfound freedom. Both men finding belonging and security in the arms of each other.
Monsoon is a beautifully structured and truthful journey into the challenges faced by the children of immigrants who flee conflict. The clash between the culture and identity of their birthplace conflicting with the country of their upbringing and education. Home, sitting between two worlds of influence, both pulling in different directions. While the need to understand the actions and choices of parents burns through childhood experience and memory.
With Kit’s journey ultimately leading to the separation of his vague childhood memories from the reality of his identity, in a country that has changed beyond recognition. His own life ultimately a product of the country of his youth rather than the country of his birth. While the family left behind on his departure, are now mere strangers. The separation of time creating a gulf of different cultural experiences.
Meanwhile, Hong Khaou creates an environment where Kit’s sexual orientation is a stabilising force in his travels. A beautiful fresh take on the role of sexual identity and cultural background; one that highlights how identity can be multifaceted for each individual.
Performances play to the delicate, documentary-like focus of the film. With Henry Golding’s Kit floating through the hustle and bustle of Saigon, a child of its history, yet a stranger to its culture. His search for answers dovetailing with his childhood memories, while remaining a tourist in a foreign land. While his cousin Lee (David Tran) views his childhood playmate with distant and cold regard. Possibly wondering what could have been if his parents had made the same decision. While also trying to engage Kit in memories of their shared heritage.
Monsoon is wrapped in a delicate and poignant screenplay, while at the same time surrounded by the beautiful cinematography of Benjamin Kracun. The vibrant and modern Saigon laced with a rich cultural history. One where tradition and globalisation meet in a glorious kaleidoscope of colour, as Kit glides through its diversity. Hong Khaou’s film shines with honesty and realism in a journey that wears its heart on its sleeve. The result of which is a personal reflection on belonging and identity that somehow feels more settled and complete by the time the credits roll.
Director: Hong Khaou