Henry Golding arrived on the scene a fully-fledged, real-life handsome prince. First in modern day fairy-tale Crazy Rich Asians, and to a lesser extent in Last Christmas and A Simple Favor, all Hollywood has asked him to do in his short career as a movie star is to be dashing. Which, to be fair to him, he is very good at. All the same, Monsoon allowing Golding to expand his horizons is a refreshing change of pace.
He plays Kit, a Vietnam-born man who’s been living in England for the last thirty years. He returns to his native country in order to find the perfect place to scatter his parents’ ashes. As he hasn’t been there since he was a small child, he traipses around Saigon like a tourist. Meeting Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an attractive American entrepreneur, helps quell his loneliness to a degree, but Kit’s time in Saigon confronts him with long-buried feelings he must tackle alone.
Monsoon, the second feature from Cambodian-Chinese-British director Hong Khaou, is a quiet, reflective film. For the most part, it takes the form of a travelogue – we walk beside Kit as wanders around Saigon, and later Hanoi, exploring the home that he doesn’t know. Trying to sense the familiarity in a place that just feels foreign. At every point, the difficulties of his hyphenated identity are highlighted. Meeting childhood friend Lee (David Tran) and his mother, it’s uncomfortably clear how little Kit remembers about his early years. Who could blame him? He was only six when he left, yet there’s still a sense of betrayal on Lee’s side that he never kept in touch. Later, a white man on the train from Saigon to Hanoi starts talking to Kit in very slow and very loud English, assuming he wouldn’t understand because he looks Vietnamese. Khaou’s film brings into sharp relief the complicated, emotionally-awkward experience of those whose identities don’t fit neatly into any one box.The movie is more eloquent about this visually than verbally. Golding can suggest a swirl of conflicting emotions – loneliness, fascination, confusion – without saying a word. There isn’t all that much dialogue in Monsoon, but what there is has the unfortunate tendency to sound overly written rather than natural. Also, a lot of it is superfluous: we didn’t need to hear Kit say ‘I feel like a tourist’ when the whole film up to that point has made that clear. Thanks to the dialogue’s shortcomings, as well as a lack of chemistry, the romance between Kit and Lewis never catches fire (although it is nice to see Parker Sawyers again after his pitch-perfect evocation of a young Obama in Southside With You).
Whilst Monsoon may have problems in the dialogue department, it remains a sensitive, beautifully photographed exploration of what it means to live as a person who isn’t entirely at home in any one country. It’s good to see Golding make an interesting film like this – let’s hope it’s not the last time he manages to break out of Hollywood.