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.
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 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.
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.
Kore-eda Hirokazu’s second fiction feature came after he had returned to his documentary roots to make the feature length TV documentary Without Memory in 1996. This featured a study of a man with a condition which prevented him from creating any new memories. It was caused by a failure of hospital procedures following an operation (actually a decision to withhold medication for budgetary reasons) and Kore-eda and his crew became involved with the man and his family in a form of participatory documentary. See this Senses of Cinema outline (with further links). The 84 minute documentary is available on YouTube with English subs and an introduction in English. Taking a camera crew to visit this young family man, Kore-eda discovered that each time they met him, Sekine Hiroshi would have no memory of their previous visit. By making the film, Kore-eda was in effect providing a form of memory for him. From a Guardian piece from 1999 by Jonathan Romney we learn that, from the age of six, Kore-eda had experienced the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on his grandfather and how as a high school student he had fashioned a script based on Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) in which he would shrink himself and enter his grandfather’s brain to trigger his lost memories. It’s worth noting that the impetus to make a documentary about memory loss is prompted by a personal experience and a desire to expose a social injustice caused by government failure. These two starting points are common for many of Kore-eda’s later films.
After Life was a surprise hit in North America and other international markets, possibly because of its presentation of a recognisable genre scenario – i.e. compared to most other Kore-eda films it seems immediately ‘universal’ as a narrative (and because it seems to refer back to Hollywood titles- the Japanese title is ‘Wonderful Life’). The film presents a ‘speculative fiction’ in which whenever somebody dies they find themselves in a ‘way station’, a kind of purgatory in the Roman Catholic sense, but without the connotations of suffering and usually confined to just seven days. Although there is no suffering as such, there is a task with deadlines. Each person is interviewed by one or two bureaucrats who require the newly deceased to select one important memory from their life. This is a memory that they will take with them into the after life. It will be their only memory, all others will be erased. They arrive on a Monday and they must decide by Wednesday. The staff will then produce a short film of the memory and these films are shown on the Saturday before the deceased are finally sent on their way. As reported in the Romney piece, Kore-eda explained that After Life is different from similar films in the West because there is no sense of ‘judgement’ at the time of death in Japan. This led to Kore-eda to find several non-professional actors and to treat them like documentary subjects. So in some cases the newly deceased characters are speaking for ‘real’ about their memories.
Kore-eda locates his way station in an old, nondescript institutional building, perhaps a school, on the outskirts of a city. The first arrivals walk up the steps, out of the mist and into the hallway where they are registered and asked to sit in the waiting room. I was reminded of two British films. Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 A Matter of Life and Death (known as Stairway to Heaven in the US) has a similarly bureaucratic welcome to heaven after the deceased have come up a long moving staircase. The very different and less well-known J. B. Priestley adaptation They Came to a City (1944) is not necessarily dealing with the deceased but takes a motley group of characters who climb through the mist to a gateway through which they are invited to visit a wonderful new city – a metaphor for a new (socialist) post-war world. Will they go to look? What will they think of it? Will they stay? In some ways this is linked to Kore-eda’s ideas.
While the idea of creating a film of a memory clearly derives from the Without Memory documentary, there are several other ideas being addressed in After Life. There is a limited number of characters in the cohort of the newly deceased (22) and they range from young to old, with a wide range of backgrounds, personalities and attitudes. What the narrative is really ‘about’ is a teasing out of what it means to be human or what it means to have ‘lived’. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could watch this film without ever thinking, however fleetingly, “Which memory would I choose?”. The corollary might then be: “But whatever I choose, if that is the only memory I have for eternity, it’ll be hell!” But Kore-eda doesn’t really follow that through. What he does do, though, is to focus equally on the recently deceased and the bureaucrats who have to deal with them. I’ve termed them bureaucrats but really they are more like guides/helpers/counsellors. Eventually, you will start to wonder who these people are who carry out the interviews and organise the filming. All will be revealed if you haven’t guessed already.
The films that are made from the memories are interesting not just for the kinds of memories that are represented but also for the way in which the film production process is presented. A typical commercial science fiction or fantasy film would probably present these in ways which emphasised their generic qualities with special effects, music and extravagant art design. Kore-eda chooses instead to present a documentary-style glimpse of film production by a group akin to students shooting a film school studio exercise. Similarly, we get to see the ‘audience’ of the deceased and the counsellors trooping into a cinema to watch the results.
What is the overall impact of After Life? I think it very much depends on how an audience reacts to the quite personal challenges that the narrative poses and which of the characters and their thoughts about memories resonate most. There is also the parallel narrative about the bureaucrats/counsellors to consider. One outcome may be that we learn something about ourselves from seeing what happens to individuals and learning their stories. In that sense this is a deeply humanist film. I should also say that the film isn’t morbid in any way. It has sequences that are comic, some that are romantic. It might be summed up by a device in the ceiling of a corridor which uses different cut-outs in the sky-light to change the view of the sky. Some reviewers have suggested that the film is actually a study of filmmaking with Kore-eda deliberately using the juxtaposition of documentary and the artificiality of studio filmmaking to make us aware of how we engage with ideas on film and how films help us to develop memories.
This was the first of Kore-eda’s films to prompt an American remake, suggesting it has mass universal appeal. This would happen again with the later films, especially Like Father, Like Son (2013) but I’m not aware of any remakes actually emerging as yet. I realise I haven’t mentioned the performances (all good) or the crucial coming together of stories in the latter part of the film. I won’t spoil that moment but look out for the retired office worker Watanabe (Naitô Taketoshi) who can’t choose a memory, causing problems for the counsellor Mochizuki (Iura Arata) and his assistant Satonaka Shiori (Oda Erika), the young woman who seems to have a crush on him.
Here’s an unofficial trailer for the film: