Monsoon (Review) – A delicate and heartfelt journey into cultural identity and belonging

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. In exploring the death of a parent and a sons need discover the cultural identity of his birth. The directors trademark sensitivity and delicate story telling, matched with sublime cinematography and nuanced performances. Creating a film that feels almost autobiographical construct, an air of documentary like realism and subjectivity sitting at its heart.

Kit (Henry Golding) is in Vietnam for the first time since he left suddenly aged eight. Carrying his mothers ashes back to the place her birth and his. Kit’s parents having fled Vietnam after the devastating war with America. His mother choosing a life in the United Kingdom based on a picture of the Queen she had seen. His parents new life in the U.K, barely mentioning the cultural heritage of the past as Kit grew up.

Arriving a few weeks before his older brother, Kit settles into Saigon the city of his birth. Looking for a suitable place to scatter his mothers ashes into the winds of the country of her origin. Reuniting with his distant cousin Lee (David Tran), both mens lives having taken starkly different trajectories in the years since they played in Saigon as children. Kit desperately searching for memories and connection to the city of his birth, but ultimately feeling like a tourist. His cultural identity sitting between a western upbringing and a city he barely recognises. His sexual orientation the only stabilising factor of his identity in the country of his birth.

On meeting Lewis (Parker Sawyers) the early sparks of a possible romance provide the only real comfort for Kit, as he travels in search of his lost ancestry. Lewis a black American designer also traversing the challenges of his American identity in a land of divisive history. Both men finding belonging and security in each others journey.

Monsoon (2019) – BBC FIlms, BFI, in association with Sharp House, Protagonist Pictures, Moonspun Films

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 birth place conflicting with the country of their upbringing and eduction. Home sitting between two worlds of influence, both pulling in different directions. The need to understand the actions and choices that were made in their journey to a new country. Mixing with the untold stories and unspoken history lost when parents die. The personal experiences that led to such fundamental change forever gone with their passing.

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. The family left behind on his childhood departure, now mere strangers, the separation of time creating a gulf of differing cultural experience.

Hong Khaou creates an environment where Kit’s sexual orientation is a stabilising force in his travels. A beautiful and fresh take on the role of sexual identity and it’s interface with cultural background. One that shows that identity can be multifaceted for each individual. And one that also places sexuality into a modern context, both Kit and Lewis comfortable in their own love and desire in a foreign land.

Performances play to the delicate, documentary like focus of the film. Henry Golding’s Kit floating through the hustle and bustle of Saigon, a child of its history, yet stranger to its culture. His connections dovetailing with childhood memory while remaining a tourist in a foreign land. While his cousin Lee (David Tran) views his childhood playmate with a distant and often 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.

The delicate and poignant screenplay, direction and performances are surrounded by the beautiful cinematography of Benjamin Kracun. The vibrancy of modern Saigon interfacing with cultural history of country that has suffered greatly through conflict and segregation. Traditions and globalisation meeting in a glorious kaleidoscope of colour, while Kit glides through its diversity.

Monsoon feels as delicate and intricate as it’s beautifully rendered scenes of Vietnam’s lotus tea production. Shining with honesty and realism in a journey that wears its heart on its sleeve. A Journey that doesn’t stop when the credits roll, but somehow feels more settled and complete.

Director: Hong Khaou

Cast: Henry Golding, Parker Sawyers, David Tran, Molly Harris

UK/Vietnam (2019)

Monsoon goes on general release in Spring 2020

Read more reviews from the BFI London Film Festival 2019