Monsoon is the perfect kind of film for those who love an emotionally-intelligent slow burn—and it doesn’t hurt that the main character is played by a man as beautiful as Henry Golding.
However, Golding eschews his typical ‘charismatic, likeable romantic lead’ character and instead flexes his subtler acting muscles in the role of Kit, a British-Vietnamese man returning to his birth country. Having never been back since fleeing the Vietnam War, Kit has returned to scatter his parents’ ashes. Kit has brought his mother’s ashes with him – we later learn that his brother will bring their father’s ashes in a few days’ time. During his time back in Saigon, he reconnects with his childhood best friend Lee (played excellently by David Tran) and begins to fall for an American man named Lewis (played by Parker Sawyers).
On one level, the plot allows for one of the overarching themes of the film to be explored – namely the wounds left by the Vietnam War. Whereas previous films have explored the American perspective of the war (see: Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and more recently Da 5 Bloods, to name a few), very rarely do we get to see the impact that the War had on the Vietnamese people themselves. We learn that although Kit and his family managed to escape, Lee and his family were not so able. There exists an undercurrent to their conversations, a simmering resentment emerging from Lee that isn’t necessarily vocalised but is instead felt by the audience viewing their interactions. Lee and Kit are vastly different in terms of socio-economic status – Kit is able to take an extended time away from earning in order to come to Vietnam and travel afterwards, whereas Lee manages a small electronics shop on his own. Could it be that Lee is envious of Kit, and the life that he has managed to obtain for himself? Possibly. I rather think instead that the scenes between Kit and Lee serve to highlight how conflict and war can have lasting psychological and emotional impacts on people even decades after the fighting has ended. Though both of these characters were once inseparable as children, the Vietnam War changed the course of their lives so completely that when reunited as adults, they seem as foreign to each other as though they are of a different race.
Speaking of race, this leads onto the next important theme of the film, which is questioning what we mean by the word ‘identity’. Director Hong Khaou depicts Kit’s alienation from his birth-country from the start of the film. As the opening shot pans out, we see the chaos of motorbikes and cars that make up the traffic of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. It is certainly an eye-opener, especially for those who have never been to Vietnam. Kit is shown to be uncomfortable, on edge – he almost seems like a tourist. Certainly not the kind of emotions one would expect to experience when in one’s birthplace. Traffic noise also constantly pervades the rest of the film, acting almost in place of a soundtrack or music, serving to remind us of the feeling of displacement. Snatches of Vietnamese can also be heard throughout, never accompanied by subtitles, so that, like Kit, the audience are thrown into a feeling of uncertainty. All this serves to indicate Kit’s palpable discomfort – he is unsettled by being in Vietnam, because it is a place that no longer resonates with him even though ethnically, he is Vietnamese.
Perhaps the best example of this is when he first meets Lee at his home and presents him with gifts. First things seem to be going well as Kit takes out chocolates, biscuits, whiskey – and then in a painfully groan-inducing moment, he produces a water bottle with a filtration system in it. In the moments that follow, you can cut the awkward tension in the air with a knife – for the audience, it is yet another reminder that Kit does not seem to belong, and has inadvertently insulted Lee with his gift.
Monsoon probes this idea of belonging, and of identity. What makes us who we are? Is it our country of origin, our upbringing, our ethnicity – or is it that it is impossible to simply define people in such ways due to the limitations that each definition brings? For those of us who are from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds, this film will resonate strongly with the feelings that we have struggled with in our lives. Often, we are seen as not enough – perhaps not quite White enough or not quite Asian enough, too much of one thing to belong to the other. Hong Khaou, the director, is himself British-Cambodian and his family fled to the UK from persecution in Cambodia – it is impossible to see the character of Kit and not imagine that some of this must come from Khaou’s personal experience.
However, the beauty of Monsoon is that you don’t have to be from a multicultural background to understand its musings on identity and belonging – so many of us have experienced feelings of isolation and alienation in our lives, that to say this is a film only for those from a multi-ethnic background can enjoy would be a wrong label indeed. And despite its emotional content, for me the ending of Monsoon is one that creates a hopeful feeling in the viewer. Throughout the film, Kit begins to build a relationship with an American man named Lewis, which goes from lustful in the beginning to more tender and loving as Kit begins to fall for Lewis. The final scene focuses on Kit and Lewis dancing and drinking in a rooftop bar in Saigon – as all other sounds fade away and the rhythmic music plays, we see them laughing and talking under the stars. It is a beautiful ending, one that almost feels healing after the hour and a half long exploration into belonging, identity, and the Vietnam War.
Monsoon may not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially those who are more accustomed to action-packed storylines, but for those who appreciate slower, more emotional films then I cannot recommend this film enough.
Monsoon is out now in UK cinemas and streaming services.
Words by Yasmin Bye
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