Monsoon is the elegant, delicately-paced second feature from director Hong Khaou, starring Henry Golding as Kit, a British Vietnamese man returning to Ho Chi Minh for the first time in more than 30 years to scatter his parents’ ashes. Tracing ambivalent pasts and ambiguous futures, Monsoon grows into a brooding portrait of immigrant displacement – one marked by a ceaseless yearning.
The film opens with an overhead shot of a large unmarked road junction in Ho Chi Minh, loud and alive with cars and motorcycles crisscrossing the space. Although the traffic flow is unregulated by traffic lights, the vehicles unerringly meander their way across in groups, seemingly orchestrated in perfect harmony. This scene captures so much of what Hong Khaou has to offer in the rest of Monsoon: a restless cityscape, the unrelenting tides of memory – and the earnest search by one man to find coherence and communion within them.
When we first encounter Kit, he is plunged in the centre of the cacophonous traffic. Arriving in Ho Chi Minh from abroad, this scene marks the first, visceral, reckoning for Kit with his birthland and all of its sights and sounds. His journey here can be said to be one of intergenerational dislocations of various kinds – within his family, across two nations, and over the long, unkind march of time.
Displacement first appears in a familial sense: Kit’s life-altering experience of growing up far from Vietnam, in a country that were not his parents’. Apart from relatives – and even estranged from a cousin – Kit grows up keenly aware of his spiritual rupture from the ancestral tree whose sacred roots inch ever deep into Vietnamese soil. It is only upon both his parents’ deaths that he returns to Vietnam after more than 30 years, carrying their ashes and seeking a burial location for their eternal rest. Kit cuts the figure not unlike a repenting pilgrim, walking in twin shadows: the coming and going of a migrant, the coming and going of his parents’ lives on earth.
There is also a different kind of intergenerational dislocation – defined in a broader sense of geography, nationhood and belonging. It is Kit arriving in his birthland and discovering it as distinctly different from the Vietnam that his parents had left behind. Kit meets Lewis (Parker Sawyers) on a date, an African-American who has opened a business in Vietnam, and whose father is a veteran of the Vietnam War. Kit also reunites with his second cousin, Lee, who reconnects him to a childhood psychogeography of home, reminding him of old haunts and family events. Another person Kit interacts with is Linh (Molly Harris), a hip young woman who loves art and is part of a family of lotus tea merchants.
Each of these three characters can be seen as a narrative metaphor for Kit’s various navigations of what Vietnam means to him – and how he interacts with the past, present and future. Fleeing the country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War forced a severance for Kit with the country – where it was, and what it was becoming. This formative splintering produces a journey of constant contemplation and confrontation for him as he moves through Vietnam — expressed visually in Monsoon via the many reflections and mirrors in which we are only allowed to see a mere spectre of Kit.
Critically, the film’s form here becomes a way of resisting any “Hollywood-type” inclination to exoticise or romanticise the immigrant’s journey back to his birthland. Pausing to ruminate upon these moments of soul-searching for Kit and never giving way to any clear emotional climax, Monsoon ambles along slowly – absorbing the viewer in its own sense of alienation and loss. The cityscapes are not seen through the rose-tinted lens of an overeager traveler, but through a weary immigrant’s haunted sense of transience and transition. The people who surround Kit are not distant natives, but living portraits of an intergenerational, multi-national reckoning of where home for him is, and who he chooses to be.
Monsoon is released in cinemas and digital – 25th September.