Monsoon (UK-Vietnam 2019)

Monsoon has just been released in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures and it is available in selected cinemas and online (see where it is playing via the film’s Official website). Nick Lacey reviewed the film on this site when it was screened at the London Film Festival. His review is here. My take on the film is slightly different so it seems worthwhile to offer a second review.

Hong Khaou is a British filmmaker, a writer-director whose first film Lilting (UK 2014) I enjoyed very much. Hong was born in Cambodia but his family moved to Vietnam almost immediately after his birth in 1975, fearing persecution by the Khmer Rouge. After 8 years in Vietnam they were then able to move to the UK. Hong studied film at Farnham in Surrey (now part of University College of the Arts) and made a number of short films and contributions to portmanteau projects before Lilting. His new film received support in the form of a Writer’s Lab grant from Sundance after the success of Lilting. Monsoon is arguably even more influenced by the director’s autobiography than Lilting since it focuses on Kit, a young man born in Vietnam who, with his family, became part of the ‘boat people’ of the 1980s, being picked up in Hong Kong waters and eventually entering the UK. Now, years later when both his parents have died, Kit makes his first return to Vietnam in order to scatter his mother’s ashes. His brother and family will follow a few weeks later with his father’s ashes. Kit has not visited Vietnam since he left as a child, primarily because his parents were so against the idea.

Kit ‘re-discovers’ Vietnam like a tourist

Hong is a gay filmmaker and as in Lilting, Kit as the central character is a gay man in his thirties, but his gay sexuality is not a key issue in the film. Instead, Kit finds himself experiencing Vietnam more as a tourist and it is his sense of ‘dislocation’ that drives the narrative. Perhaps ‘drive’ is not the best word. This is a slow-paced and contemplative film, perhaps too slow for some audiences. The opening shot, an overhead view of a massive road junction with streams of scooters and small motorbikes crossing diagonally, introduces Ho Chi Min City (Saigon). It seems a bewildering, alienating city as Kit’s taxi brings him from the airport to what I thought at first was his hotel, but later turns out to be an apartment he has rented in ‘District 2’. District 2 is a new economic development with accommodation for newly wealthy Vietnamese alongside a developing business centre.

Kit and Lewis visit bars and restaurants in the modern city

Kit is played by Henry Golding, the British Malaysian bi-racial actor who came to prominence in the film Crazy Rich Asians (US 2018), which I missed in cinemas. I didn’t realise this until after I’d seen Monsoon and I spent time during my viewing trying to determine who the character played by this actor was supposed to be – i.e. I began to wonder who Kit’s father might be. Was he a Westerner? Part of Hong’s strategy seems to be to deliver any back story only in small pieces of information, many of which come from Kit’s childhood friend Lee (David Tran). Lee has learned some English working as a tour guide and now runs a shop selling mobile phones and accessories. Kit’s conversations with Lee are strained and difficult. Later we realise that Lee knows things about Kit’s family that Kit himself doesn’t know or has forgotten. Kit also meets two other significant characters who also speak English. Lewis (Parker Sawyers) is an African-American of roughly Kit’s age and the two met on a gay dating site before Kit arrived in Vietnam. Lewis has a slightly different set of reasons for being in the country and these gradually emerge in exchanges with Kit that are also sometimes strained but Kit and Lewis do perhaps understand each other. Finally Kit meets Linh, a young Vietnamese woman from Hanoi who works as an art curator and whose excellent English (learned as part of an expensive education) is useful in her job. All three of these characters seem to be written in order to raise questions about different aspects of the ways in which the ‘new’ Vietnam is dealing with the West and memories of colonialism and the liberation struggles. These are not directly featured but in a sense they represent the kind of buried memories that Kit himself is struggling with.

Kit with Lee in some of the more traditional neighbourhoods

Monsoon is quite short and it is much more about mood and feelings rather than narrative, My strongest response to the film was one of recognition of that sense of being in an environment that is at the same time both familiar and alien. In a BBC Radio 4 interview on the Film Programme, Hong explains that in the first half of the film he and his cinematographer Benjamin Kracun shot Kit ‘in reflection’, i.e. as seen in mirrors or windows and other ways to emphasise this dislocation. This was gradually removed as a device as Kit becomes more used to his new surroundings. Hong suggests that audiences might not notice this but that they might feel it – and I think I did. But more than that I was taken by the ‘Scope framing (IMDb suggests 2.20;1 which is an odd aspect ratio) of streetscapes. I haven’t been to Vietnam but I have experienced several other major Asian cities and the long shot compositions of streets, buildings and traffic placed Kit in the environment much as I imagined myself as a tourist being seen. The film also evokes scenes from other Asian films. One other aesthetic decision supports this. In the first half of the film I was conscious of the lack of non-diegetic music, often just with street sounds or of silence in Kit’s apartment. However, in the final section of the film, music becomes important and I was struck by memories of Michael Nyman’s score for a film I love, Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999). Winterbottom’s view of London streets was said to have been influenced by Wong Kar-wai’s ways of representing Hong Kong on screen, so perhaps it’s not such a strange reference.

Monsoon has been well recieved by critics but less so by some audiences if the small number of responses on IMDb are in any way representative. I think it is a quiet thoughtful film that offers much if you allow it to do its work, but if you become impatient with it, it will resist and clam up. I enjoyed it very much, but it took me a while to warm to Kit. The poetic qualities of the film and its rendering of Vietnam as experienced by Kit’s returning migrant moved me greatly.

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