Credit: Dat VU
Before We Vanish by Mattie Lucas Film

Monsoon | Hong Khaou

November 24, 2020

Monsoon is a poetic, aching work that details both the reclamation and awakening of one man’s lost identity. 

The alienation of a Vietnamese expatriate named Kit (Henry Golding), who returns to his ancestral home after a lifetime spent in Britain, is at the core of Hong Khaou’s Monsoon, an altogether lovely and poignant exploration of cultural identity in a nation forever changed by imperialist violence. Kit has returned to a Vietnam he can barely remember in order to scatter his mother’s ashes. But returning his mother to her homeland is merely the pretense for a journey of spiritual reawakening in which Kit reconnects with his own identity — both culturally and sexually, exploring the ever-shifting identity of a nation in flux through a series of one-night stands and a fleeting romance with a Canadian entrepreneur named Lewis (Parker Sawyers).

In many ways, Monsoon is a more focused and incisive exploration of the effects of imperialism on Vietnam than Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. Whereas Lee’s take is more raw and thorny and unwieldy, it very much maintains the character of an American take on the devastation wrought by the war. Monsoon is something else altogether: an insider’s view of the post-War landscape and portrait of the nation’s modernity. Director Hong Khaou — who fled to Vietnam from Cambodia as a child to escape the Khmer Rouge, before then immigrating to the UK — seems to be channeling his own experience as a stranger in his own strange homeland. For Kit, Vietnam exists as abstract memory, a home to which he feels no specific kinship, yet one he seeks to connect with as an important piece of his identity. Hong’s graceful direction creates a kind of sensuous lyricism that recalls the fluid filmmaking of Kogonada’s Columbus by way of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, and the formal strokes meld nicely in this queer romance where self-exploration has less to do with the visible sexuality and more to do with a former refugee’s pursuit of a sense of belonging.

The Ho Chi Minh City of modern times is a vibrant place, teeming with life and culture — for younger generations born after the war, the American conflict is something of an abstraction — and it is through this lovely backdrop that Kit wanders: day-dreaming, longing, fucking, and ultimately getting in touch with the man he was always meant to be. Monsoon is a delicate, lovely thing, a poetic exploration of identity through the lens of a man who doesn’t feel like he has one of his own. It’s a deeply personal and often aching work, but rather than dully sketching a man mid-identity crisis, it instead depicts an awakening, a man coming to terms with his past and opening his eyes to the future. Hong’s languid sense of pacing lends this 85-minute film an uncommon grace and helps build understated power, exploring a lifetime’s worth of longing and uncertainty in the briefest of encounters.

Published as part of Before We Vanish | November 2020.