“This is my attempt to try to put a personal face to the immigrant experience,” says director Hong Khaou of new film Monsoon starring Henry Golding
Hong Khaou’s beautiful new film Monsoon is a restrained but profoundly moving meditation on identity. It follows Kit (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding), a successful young British Vietnamese man, as he returns to his birth country for the first time since his family fled Saigon when he was a child. The trip’s purpose is poignant – he’s flown to Vietnam to scatter his parents’ ashes – but Khaou is more interested in Kit’s response to his former home than his grieving process. Vietnam has changed a lot since he was last there – but so has Kit, who can now only remember fragments of what was once his native tongue.
Monsoon is rooted in Khaou’s own experience without being entirely autobiographical. He was born in Cambodia in 1975 to Chinese-Cambodian parents, but his family fled to Vietnam a few months later when the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh. He’s said in the past that this journey, undertaken on foot, took them 40 days. When Khaou was eight years old, his family emigrated to London, where he went on to study at the University of Creative Arts and still lives today. His previous feature film, 2014’s excellent Lilting, traced the tricky relationship between Richard (Ben Whishaw), a grieving gay man, and Junn (Cheng Pei-pei), the disapproving Chinese mother of Richard’s late partner.
Khaou says he wants Monsoon to offer a contemporary alternative to the “biased perspective” on Vietnam – the world’s 15th most populous country – propagated by American films about the Vietnam War. He began writing the film when the UK was in the midst of the Brexit referendum and the US was busy electing Trump as President, so a political element definitely seeped into his screenplay. Khaou speaks calmly throughout our interview, but says he gets angry when immigration is used as “an easy scapegoat” for problems in Western society. “This is my attempt to try to put a personal face to the immigrant experience,” he says. “So often, we don’t try to understand why somebody uproots their entire family and goes through so much trauma to move to a new country. It isn’t like you just wake up one day and think ‘this is what I’m going to do’. It isn’t like you’re just going on a journey.”
One of the reasons Kit is so bewildered by Vietnam, a rapidly modernising country that doesn’t match his patchy childhood memories, is because his parents rarely spoke about their homeland after they’d moved to the UK. “A lot of our parents who have been through this experience, they want to build something for their children in the West, and in some ways that’s contingent on them forgetting any past wrongs,” Khaou says. “That’s how I wrote it in the script – [his parents’ reticence] was their way of liberating their children so they could be who they want to be. And so Kit has this frustration that he’s not able to access information about his birth country because his parents didn’t talk about it.”
As Monsoon progresses, Kit finds himself increasingly torn between his national and cultural identities, but refreshingly, he seems completely comfortable with being gay. We see him having a casual hookup and forming a less fleeting romantic bond with Lewis (Parker Sawyers), a Black American designer living in Saigon. At times, Lewis’ guilt over what his country did during the Vietnam War becomes the unavoidable elephant in the room. “I definitely didn’t want Kit and Lewis to carry any kind of burden to do with their sexuality,” Khaou says. “I think Lewis and Kit go through a similar struggle in the film, but it’s to do with their cultural and national identities rather than sexual intimacy, which is something they’re very comfortable with. And I wanted the final scene to encapsulate that, which is why we see them kiss – and it’s a wholehearted kiss – in a space that isn’t a gay bar.”
In a role that’s very different to anything else we’ve seen him in – Crazy Rich Asians, Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen, the Emma Thompson-penned rom-com Last Christmas – Golding gives an impressively nuanced performance as a man grappling with the fact he’s both a privileged Westerner and a product of Vietnam. Khaou’s film is brilliant on a micro level – one scene features a Chinese cover of 80s new wave hit I Know What Boys Like, nodding to the crossing of cultures – and in terms of creating a very specific, overarching mood. It’s one that’s ambiguous but melancholy, and which stays with you after the credits. Rather modestly, Khaou simply says he hopes Monsoon will give people “an insight into this character who’s kind of in between identities”. His depiction of Kit is so vivid and empathetic, it’s hard to believe people won’t feel for him, too.
Monsoon is released in cinemas and on digital from September 25, 2020.