Interview: Hong Khaou, dir. Monsoon

This sophomore effort from Hong Khaou stars Henry Golding as Kit, a British Vietnamese man returning to his birth-land for the first time to scatter his parents’ ashes. Monsoon sketches the geographical and emotional contours of such a journey, steering between the cacophonous traffic of Ho Chi Minh and the restless, internal tides of memory and mourning.

With this film, UK-based Khaou follows up on his breakout feature, Lilting, which won a cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2014. Cambodian-Chinese by birth, Khaou fled the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia with his family and grew up in Vietnam. Working on Monsoon, Khaou returned to Vietnam for the first time in thirty years. The film premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last year and also stars Parker Sawyers, Molly Harris and David Tran.

Here, Khaou shares more about developing Monsoon, filming in Vietnam, and finding a way to express the internal worlds of his characters onscreen.

Sara Merican: Could you walk me through your process of bringing this film to the screen? What was the inspiration for you?

Hong Khaou: I’ve always had an idea of wanting to make a film in Vietnam. Even though I’m not Vietnamese, I grew up there and my childhood memories are of that place. And I wanted to touch on the conflict there as well. The American-Vietnam War, but not make it a period piece, more a present day thing. And then the very, very rough draft got into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. They gave me a small grant, and I was able to use that grant to then visit Vietnam for some time. And subsequently, I was able to go back to Cambodia after that. So that’s when I think the script started taking shape. I think then the character Linh came in when I was visiting Hanoi. It’s something that I’ve always cared about, and it’s something that I still go through — this tug of war, a sense of identity between cultural and national identity. And most days I’m okay, but every now and again, I still get these internal conflicts and I think it will probably stay with me.

SM: How much does the personal inform the creative in this piece? How do you decide what to put in a film, or take liberties with?

HK: I filter everything through me. And it’s the only way I know how to do it. The film isn’t autobiographical, but I think a lot of it is very personal. And there are feelings, things that I care about deeply and I try to make it work in the film. And when you try to do that, there’s room that you have to kind of embellish or exaggerate a bit. I did extensive research into it. There’s an audio archive in America of Vietnamese refugees’ experiences going to America, and there’s a smaller library of archives in the UK. So I was digging into that a lot and kind of amalgamating some of these stories into one, putting it into, let’s say, the experiences of Kit. I think the process of writing is a case of just writing and refining and ditching things that you don’t like, and then sometimes you bring them back. And eventually arrive at a place where it can talk about things. Like one of the big motifs in the film is this sense of old and new, the young and the old, the past and the present. And Vietnam. I think it’s quite a unique time at the moment because it’s going through this incredible transition. I thought it was a really perfect time to capture that.

SM: Which was the archive that you took a look at in the UK and the US?

HK: There’s an archive by a Vietnamese house in the UK, it’s held in the British Library. And then there’s one in the US, and that was a really amazing archive because they have children asking their parents — the children are interviewing their parents about the experience. And I thought that it was quite clever to allow the next generation to understand their parents’ history.

SM: That’s really fascinating. I was watching this Vietnamese short film a few days ago where they tried to use Kafka’s Metamorphosis as a sort of metaphor for representing Vietnam as a country in transition, the past and the future. So your comment reminded me of that. I think that’s a very contemporary topic as well, negotiating all these moments of transition.

HK: Yes, I think there’s definitely a generation of adults who come from a diaspora background, where our parents have fled countries in conflict. We are now grappling for a sense of who we are. Interestingly, when I was writing this in the UK, it felt quite pertinent at that point, and maybe it still does…we were going through the Brexit referendum ourselves, and America had Trump — kind of about power. And so this talk about refugees and immigration became so polarizing. Nobody wanted to have a proper discussion, and when you try to it just became polemic. It was such a convenient scapegoat. I think it’s a fascinating subject personally, and not to sound arrogant, but maybe this film in some way puts a face to that experience.

SM: In this film, there are all these sights and sounds that Kit, the main character, experiences and sees. But so much of the film is also the internal world that is unspoken. How do you find that expression of this internal world in your film?

HK: Kit indeed does go through an internal journey. We had to find an actor that could give us access to some of those internal struggles and nuances. And then also use sound and camera as a way to externalise or embellish those motifs that I wanted to talk about. For example, that motif between past and present, the young and the old — I think it’s in the writing and it’s also in the way I wanted to film. The look of it was so important. For a film that’s so small and intimate, it needed a beauty or language that can translate. I don’t know if people got it, but one of the things I wanted to do was to shoot Kit off reflections at the beginning, arriving, to give that separation between him and his birthland. And to keep that gentle distance that he is dislocated from and then as the film progressed, I think we started to remove that motif. Because it is such a personal journey, it was filmed to allow the audience to feel like they’re watching something very personal. Not from afar, but just a couple of steps behind you. I think when heartfelt moments arise, you would feel it beside him.

SM: Yes, I noticed the reflections and mirrors. Another thing I’m curious about are all those phone conversations that take place. We only hear Kit’s side of the conversations; we never really hear the other side. What was your thinking behind that?

HK: It was to give him a sense of loneliness. I think because of his story, I felt it was interesting to just hear his side. I hope in doing that you will get a sense of what is being spoken. It’s to give it an artistry and tell things in a way that doesn’t feel too familiar or too obvious.

SM: Yes, I think it links to what you said about dislocation as well. That you always see Kit dislocated from whatever his life was outside of Vietnam, because now he’s on a return journey.

HK: I wanted that sense of feeling slightly foreign in his birthland, and the sense of loneliness with it.

SM: On the topic of the main character, how did the casting process come about, in terms of finding Henry Golding for this role?

HK: We knew it had to be an actor that that was good enough to give us access to those internal nuances and personal elements. We spent a lot of time searching extensively in the UK, but we went really wide. We went out to New Zealand, Australia, as far as Germany as well. We just cast the net wide to get the best possible actor. There was a moment we had an actor fly over from Australia and tested, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. And then we had a taping of Henry come in and I think immediately all of us got quite excited because he had a presence. He makes you want to watch, and that was quite an important quality already. We tested him thoroughly, like we spent a lot of time asking for audition taping and I even worked across Skype with him. And then eventually we felt it was something worth exploring. So I flew over to LA, as he happened to be there. We spent a day working on a handful of scenes so that we can both get a sense of working together. What really worked for me was when Henry accessed some of these emotions, and it didn’t feel mannered. It came across very honest. I think that’s partly because he doesn’t come from a heavy training, acting background. And then it got me really excited. It just felt very real for me. Having worked with him that day, I felt that we were able to talk about things and together, find a set of languages for Kit. It’s weird because at that time, we didn’t know anything about Crazy Rich Asians. I mean, people talked about it, but I really didn’t understand how big the book was and obviously, the subsequent [film] success of it. So that was never a factor for us. But I think it was important he did tell us that he had done two feature films and he had at least some experience of working on a on a film set. And yeah, now he’s this big star.

SM: I guess the sort of personality he embodied in this film was just so different from his character in Crazy Rich Asians. It’s quite remarkable, seeing that range he has. How was it like working with him? Especially trying to evoke those internal thoughts which are for the most part left unspoken.

HK: The film always needed that. And Henry clearly was capable. So once we saw that he had these qualities and layers, we spent a lot of time in rehearsal talking about Kit and talking about how I wanted a more understated performance, but still be able to actually access these things from a deep place from within. We spent a lot of time talking about it. It was really important that the tone of the film was that.

SM: How did you conceptualise the other characters like David, Parker and Molly, and go about casting them?

HK: The script was always going to be this two-hander between Kit and Lewis and that has always stayed the same. And then in subsequent drafts and when I went up to Hanoi, that’s when I found the Linh character. In my head I felt that the three of them had an interesting dynamic. When I was writing I felt that Parker represents the past, Kit represents the present, and Linh represents the future, to speak of Vietnam. I was writing these characters with this kind of motif in mind. We found Parker through a casting agent in the early test when we flew the Australian actor over. Even though it didn’t work for him, we found somebody that was really exciting. Parker’s really exciting but we couldn’t do anything until we find… We had to find our Kit and then build everybody around him. And then for Molly, it was a taping that came in again. We were really excited. She’s Vietnamese, but she was adopted from a very young age by Dutch and English parents. And when she filmed, that was her first time back to Vietnam. So I felt that a lot of the actors understood the themes in the film. Parker’s dad fought in the Vietnam War as well. We were able to put a really good group together.

SM: How long did you film in Vietnam for?

HK: The filming altogether was 30 days, across six weeks. And then were there another five, six weeks before that to prep it.

SM: How was the experience like?

HK: It was amazing, to be honest with you. Vietnam is such an incredible country, culturally, just to be able to shoot a film there. And it’s insanely cheap as well. On the one hand, it is quite bureaucratic to film there because of the regime of the country. But equally, they welcomed us with open arms, they really kind of just welcomed us and allowed us to film in

the places we didn’t think we could get. I felt like it really elevated the film. It made the film look a lot more expensive than…we literally placed all actors in those moments. We couldn’t close the street down or anything. That gave the film another layer. It felt authentic. And there are things that you inevitably get filming in another country — things that are lost in translation and cultural differences in working. But yeah, I think we got along well. It had its moments.

SM: Yes, I felt like there was just a lot of texture in the film — quiet alleys, busy streets, the opening shot of the film, with the motorcycles crisscrossing. There’s not really a rule, but people have their own code that they follow at intersections. It was really special how you embodied that in the film.

HK: Vietnam is like that. All your senses are assaulted the minute you arrive there. A cacophony of sounds. We needed to capture that. I remember thinking, there’s no way we can control that. We just have to embrace them and make it part of the texture of the film.

SM: How do you preserve that original voice, the original idea, the original concept in such a collaborative medium like film? Where producers have their own sort of voice, people who provide funding have their own voice, and investors and all that. How do you take this input as part of the creative process, but also preserve your original intentions as well?

HK: I guess maybe because I am the writer and director, I felt there was a lot of respect to allow me to write this in a way that I envisioned and imagined it. But of course, the process like you say, is collaborative. This is my second feature. Everybody goes in knowing this is a collaborative process. And rather than fighting it — I don’t think that really brings about any kind of positive result — it’s to get involved with people that you have an affinity with. Luckily, I was able to work with Tracy [O’Riordan, Monsoon’s producer] and learn from her experience and then she could help me. And for funding, we’re lucky because it came from the BFI [British Film Institute] predominantly first and then BBC Film came onboard. They were very encouraging and supportive of me telling a personal story. But of course, along the way, the notes came in and it was time to pull your hair out, and it’s really tough. Everybody did with the right intention. It might not feel it at first, but looking at a result, I feel like we’ve gone through a filtering process, or just a process of whittling away, rewriting and rewriting to arrive at a place that I’m very happy with.

Monsoon is released in cinemas and digital – 25th September.

Sara Merican