Cultural Alienation and Displacement
In “Monsoon”, British-Cambodian writer-director Hong Khaou brings us an elegant study of cultural alienation and displacement as a young man born in Vietnam but raised in the United Kingdom returns home after thirty years away.
The film opens with a high, overhead shot showing the beautiful chaos of a busy junction in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam. Brightly colored scooters rush around automobiles and lost among this is Kit (Henry Golding), a Vietnam native who left Saigon three decades ago, when he was six and his parents fled the country for Britain post-Reunification.
Kit has returned to find a place to scatter his parents’ ashes. He looks for “somewhere momentous”, although he soon realizes that his search will not be easy. His memories of his early life are vague and the old spots he does remember have either been Westernized beyond recognition or fallen into ruin. He is stuck for inspiration and even tries taking bus tours. He says “feels like a tourist”.
We often see Kit confusedly wandering the streets with Google maps open on his phone, the look of recollection perceptible on his face as he comes upon a building he hazily recalls from childhood. Around him, the streets are a buzz of activity as locals bustle past, getting on with their day. Meeting a friend from childhood he’ll say he has “good remembrances” of playing together, while later he says the prospect of visiting Vietnam was forbidden by his parents. It’s as if his conversations with his oldest friend have been scrambled through a translator.
Kit finds a kindred spirit in Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an African-American entrepreneur with whom he begins a passionate romance after hooking up via a dating app. Like Kit, Lewis feels uneasy in Vietnam. His father never recovered from doing three tours their during the war. He insists that his T-shirt business is “contributing to the country’s growing economy”, he and Kit both know he’s in Vietnam for the cheap labor. Kit also meets another lost soul in Linh (Molly Harris), a Vietnam native who wants to break away from her family’s struggling tea business, a casualty of the country’s rampant modernization.
The film is inspired by the director’s own biography. His family too emigrated from Vietnam to England, having first fled the Khmer Rouge when Khaou was just a baby. As such, small interactions – the awkward reunions with the friends Kit’s family left behind or the hesitant small talk with strangers who approach Kit assuming he’s a local resonate. We recognize director Khaou’s keen sense of the loneliness of a traveler in a foreign land or the discombobulating effects it has on mind and body.
As Kit, Golding impresses. He is tentative and hurt by his characters existential malaise. He is sensitive in glances and body language, and the fascinating interplay between what’s said out loud and what remains unspoken is beguiling. Kit is confronted with an alternative version of his mother that he was denied because of the turmoil following the country’s reunification, which prompted his family to flee.
“Monsoon” was produced by an entirely female team, and shot on a modest budget, but with a great eye for composition. The opening shot alone conveys not only the controlled chaos of Ho Chi Minh City traffic, but this idea of controlled chaos perfectly suggests Kit’s state of mind when he arrives in his mother-country. It’s a country that hasn’t stopped growing since Kit and his family and the transformation gives the dynamic backdrop to this character drama about negotiating who we are while the what defines us.