There’s a kind of hypnotic stillness to Hong Khaou’s gentle drama Monsoon. Henry Golding stars as Kit, a British Vietnamese man returning to Vietnam decades after his family fled to the U.K. in Khaou’s follow-up to his equally beguiling Lilting (2014). This drama is a swoon-worthy character study about a gay man adrift in a bustling city that looks nothing like when he was a kid.
Kit arrives in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) hoping to reconnect with his roots. Or to the roots his parents knowingly severed when they left during the American-Vietnam war. His mother has died and he’s tasked himself with scattering her ashes in the place she once called home. As he meanders through the city and takes in what a modern Vietnam feels like today, he’s reminded that he grasps at what was may be too futile an effort. Monsoon understands what it means to live between (and across) two different cultures. It dramatizes the pull to embrace a nostalgic past all the while wanting to embrace a pressing present. Rather than frame those conversations as warring tensions, Monsoon constantly finds ways of creating fragile harmony out of them.
Even as he reconnects with an estranged second cousin and finds a connection with a dashing American clothing designer, Kit feels adrift. But rather than make us sit with any kind of discomfort, Khaou frames this identity crisis as a welcome moment of growth. Learning to sit with his silences and modeling for audiences a rare vision of introspection, Kit is a character who, in another kind of movie, would have a life-changing epiphany. Here, though, they’re incremental. You can see him learn about himself, about his native country, about the life of those around him in small moments that Khaou wants us to revel in. This is a film that wants us to pause and listen.
Privileging slow pans and still shots that linger on Golding’s face, Khaou’s film is sparse and intent on setting a melancholy mood that never feels overbearing. We see him sitting by his iPad at night in his hotel room, his reflection blending with the nighttime skyline outside. A close-up shot of him drinking beer alone at a rainbow-adorned bar pans out to let us see the bustling streets around him. His alienation is constantly framed by the busyness of a city that calls out for his attention. With few music cues throughout, Monsoon immerses us in the every day sounds of HCMC (and later Hanoi), at times refusing to make us feel grounded in what we’re watching: with no subtitles to help us navigate the portions of Vietnamese dialogue (like Kit, we depend on those who translate for him) and no attempt to give us the dialogue that greets Kit’s many FaceTime calls with his family in his empty hotel room, Khaou nurtures in us a sense of alienation that never feels as disorienting nor as discomfiting as it sounds.
The warmth that Khaou surrounds Kit with comes through Golding’s performance. His Kit is bashful but never shy. To see him flirt with Parker Sawyers’s Lewis at a bar is a joy that cannot be overstated. Their chemistry — both in those flirtatious moments over drinks and in the steamier ones in the bedroom — is palpable. And while their meet-cute may well suggest Monsoon is a highbrow take on the romcom, Khaou’s decision to pepper their budding relationship with prickly exchanges (on, say, American jingoism: “I’m not one of those Yanks who thinks we’ve won and sticks a freaking a flag on it”) makes their bond feels messy and authentic.
If I’ve not yet made it clear, I fell hard for Monsoon. I mean, you had me at “Henry Golding bashfully flirting at a Vietnamese gay bar wearing short shorts.” (That may well be enough of a pull to get people to watch this gem of a film.) However, Monsoon is a film I keep returning to because its mood of wistful melancholia felt like a balm. May you swoon alongside it as much as I did.
Monsoon opens in virtual theaters November 13, 2020.