The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinemas/Digital] - MONSOON | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinemas/Digital] - MONSOON

monsoon review
A Vietnamese-British man returns to Vietnam to scatter his parents' ashes.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Hong Khaou

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

monsoon poster

Writer/director Hong Khaou (Lilting) opens his second feature film, Monsoon, with a contender for the most arresting shot of 2020. From a bird's eye angle his camera observes a busy intersection in Saigon as cars and motorcycles (lots and lots of motorcycles) negotiate the junction in what seems like complete disarray. As more and more vehicles enter the frame, the image takes on the appearance of an evolving fractal, a chaotic blur.

monsoon review

It's a tangible visual allegory for the disorientation a visitor can often feel when they first arrive in a big foreign city. In this case, the fish out of water (or perhaps in this case, a fish returning to water) is Kit (Henry Golding), a 36-year-old Vietnamese-British man returning to the country of his birth for the first time since his family fled for England 30 years ago. He's arrived ostensibly to scatter his parents' ashes, but he's also hoping to reconnect with the land of his childhood, his parents having forbidden him to ever return while they were alive.

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Through this setup, Khaou explores ideas of identity and the disconnect hyphenated westerners can often have with the cultures they originate from. Living in Dublin, I've encountered countless Irish-Americans who are disappointed to discover that the Irish capital is a modern, multi-cultural metropolis like any other major European city, rather than the antiquated emerald paradise they've imagined. Like those American tourists, Kit finds Saigon is a thriving, rapidly developing city with skyscrapers sprouting like weeds through the soil of the past. Meeting with a distant cousin and former childhood friend, Lee (David Tran), Kit patronisingly gifts him with a water filtration flask and a tin of biscuits emblazoned with a portrait of the royal family. Another faux pas is committed when Kit mistakes a local gallery guide (Molly Harris) for an American, so surprised is he by her command of English.

monsoon review

As he becomes increasingly aware that he knows very little of the country he left as a child, Kit bonds with Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an American whose father committed suicide as a result of unresolved PTSD from fighting in Vietnam. Initially hooking up through a dating app, the two men are physically attracted but Lewis's guilt over his country's treatment of Kit's birthplace makes him uncomfortable in his presence. Somewhat cruelly, Kit mocks such feelings, accusing him of exploiting cheap labour by having the clothes for his burgeoning fashion label made in Vietnam. When Lewis attempts to talk about how he doesn't approve of the war his father fought in, Kit condescendingly dismisses him, as though assuming the right to speak for a people he has barely connected with. It made me think of how Irish-Americans assume all Irish people support the IRA and foster the sort of anti-British sentiment that has all but died out with the last couple of generations.

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The more Kit sees of the country his family left, the more he realises he has little connection with it. "I feel like a tourist," he tells his brother back home over Skype. Director Khaou is Cambodian-British while his leading man is Malaysian-British, and you get the sense that this may be something they've both experienced themselves. In Ireland, there's something of a resentment towards the families that left the country when times were tough - be it the famine or the troubles or take your pick of economic recessions - and their grandchildren who visit with naive notions of quaintness, only to find themselves greeted coldly by the natives of their ancestral home. I imagine in Vietnam this is even more pronounced, and it's a sentiment that seems to be on the tip of the tongue of Lee, who speaks sadly about calling around to play with Kit 30 years ago, only to find his home abandoned. Lee clearly feels betrayed by the actions of Kit's family. As good as Golding is here, and he really is very good, Tran is the standout as the somewhat embittered Tran. His character's feelings of being left behind are palpable.

monsoon review

Khaou takes a quiet and studied approach to filming this outwardly simple but thematically complicated story. Many of its moments are clearly influenced by Asian cinema, such as a beautifully observed scene in which Kit can't quite decide where in his hotel room he should place his parents' urn. Kit rarely mentions his parents but this small moment speaks volumes about how even in the afterlife he worries about letting them down. Like the urn, Kit can't quite find a place in Vietnam that he feels wholly comfortable with, and ultimately the film suggests that the identity you carve out for yourself is more important than the one you inherit.

Monsoon is in UK/ROI cinemas and on Digital from September 25th.

2020 movie reviews