A man looking just like Crazy Rich Asians lead Henry Golding travels alone on a train from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi about halfway into writer-director Hong Khaou’s art house drama Monsoon. Though the actual trip takes well over 30 hours, the film’s two sequences aboard the train are brief. But in those few minutes, the different identities that are all a part of who Kit, the protagonist so sensitively played by Golding, really is come into laser-sharp focus. It’s a glorious moment of cinema, combining the expert use of actors, their glances and body language, and the fascinating interplay between what’s said out loud and what remains unspoken to beguiling effect.
Not everything in Monsoon is quite as successful as those moments on the train. But overall, this is a fascinating and thoughtful follow-up to Khaou’s well-received debut feature, the 2014 Sundance premiere Lilting with Ben Whishaw and Cheng Pei-pei. It also similarly dives into subjects such as living between cultures, feeling lost in translation and the complex and sometimes conflicting intersection of identities that emerges when you’re part of more than one minority — Kit is a Vietnamese-born, British-raised gay man.
An intimate drama of surprising depth.
After a world premiere in competition at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Monsoon looks like a natural for further festival travel, though theatrical sales beyond the U.K. might be less obvious since the pix is, by design, very intimate and will thus require specialized marketing for regular art house play; streamers might be more open to programming Golding in an offbeat drama.
Back to that train. The first of the two sequences simply involves Kit coming into the compartment and sitting down on his bunk while an elderly female passenger sits on the bunk opposite him. The two strangers never exchange a word, though she does speak two words of Vietnamese to her husband, lying on the bunk above hers. Kit just looks intensely at the unknown woman for a few seconds. During that time, it will start to dawn on viewers that she must remind Kit of his own mother, whose ashes he has brought to the country of their birth, Vietnam, of which he remembers very little. Perhaps, if she hadn’t fled with her kids to Europe, she could have been that woman sitting on that train.
Golding’s act of looking, combined with the information carefully parceled out earlier in the film, is enough to make it one of the drama’s most emotionally resonant moments. 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.
In the sequence that immediately follows, Kit, smoking a cigarette near one of the train’s bathrooms, is asked for a light by a French tourist, Stephane (Edouard Leo). The stranger mistakes Kit for a local, though the audience will have long since understood that Kit left Vietnam when he was six, grew up in England and doesn’t even really speak Vietnamese anymore. From the way the two men ever so briefly chat — “Got a light?” is the most obvious pickup line in history, and the stranger introduces himself by name, which is not a requirement for such a small favor — there’s a cruisy vibe to their exchange, even if the movie never shows them going any further or, indeed, meeting again.
But the audience has already seen how Kit has no real hangups about either his sexuality or anonymous hookups. That said, the main purpose here seems to be to illustrate what happens when Kit — in just about every way a foreigner in his country of birth — finds himself mistaken for a local. And again, if the country and his own family’s history had been different, he could have been one, so the specter of an alternative history and paths closed off by events outside of Kit’s direct control returns.
What happens in those few minutes on the train is that Khaou has managed to conjure his protagonist’s different identities by suggesting so clearly what he did not become. Though he’s traveling alone and might occasionally stare into the distance, it is always absolutely clear what’s on his mind as he explores Vietnam solo for a few days before the arrival of his brother and the planned scattering of their mother’s ashes.
Almost all the characters we meet share this sense of different, overlapping identities co-existing within a single person. Lewis (Parker Sawyers, who played Obama in Southside With You), for example, starts off as one of Kit’s random dates. He’s an African-American who moved to Vietnam and started a business there and whose father fought in the Vietnam War. As an American in Vietnam, he’s a Westerner in the East, though unlike Stephane, he’s not a tourist but someone who has settled there. Like Kit, however, Lewis has a family connection to the country shrouded in a lot of past pain and a dash of mystery and incomprehension. “I’m not one of those Yanks,” Lewis tells Kit, without elaborating further, though in some if clearly not all ways, he might still be.
As he did in Lilting, Khaou in Monsoon finely sketches the complex inner lives and identities of a small group of characters and plugs them into a narrative that unfolds gradually but precisely, so audiences have the time to consider the work’s larger thematic concerns.
Golding here proves his versatility as an actor. The role is about as different as could be from his breakout as the charmer with the killer smile from Crazy Rich Asians. It’s a somber, subdued part that requires a lot of nonverbal communication, and Golding impresses as someone who is frequently outwardly reserved but whose inner life is often in turmoil.
Sawyers and Molly Harris, who plays a young Vietnamese art expert and guide whose parents have different values and expectations, both naturally suggest the complexity of their characters. Struggling a bit more is David Tran, who is stiff at times as Kit’s estranged second cousin, though this also clearly has to do with him getting some of the most overly didactic lines (the pic works best when it trusts its audience to fill in the blanks, as it does in the train sequences).
Monsoon, produced by an entirely female team, was likely shot on a modest budget, but DP Benjamin Kracun has 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 also perfectly suggests Kit’s state of mind when he arrives in his country of birth. It’s a country that hasn’t stopped growing since Kit and his family left over 30 years ago. That transformation offers the dynamic backdrop to this compelling character drama about negotiating who we are while the elements that define us might be in constant motion.
Production companies: Moonspun Films, BBC Films, BFI, Sharp House
Cast: Henry Golding, David Tran, Lam Anh Dao, Ho Nhi, Phan Bao Ngoc, Vo Lien, Parker Sawyers, Molly Harris, Olivia Hearn, Edouard Leo
Director-screenwriter: Hong Khaou
Producer: Tracy O’Riordan
Executive producers: Emma Dutton, Rebecca Joerin-Sharp, Lizzie Francke, Rose Garnett
Director of photography: Benjamin Kracun
Production designer: Miren Maranon Tejedor
Costume designer: Adam Howe
Music: John Cummings
Editor: Mark Towns
Casting: Amy Hubbard
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Protagonist Pictures
In English, Vietnamese