Karlovy Vary 2019 Review: Hong Khaou’s ‘Monsoon’ a tender look at personal identity
A man returns to his homeland of Saigon, the city his family fled when he was just six years old, in Monsoon, the second feature film from writer-director Hong Khaou (Lilting) now playing in competition at the 2019 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Kit (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding, in a carefully-mannered performance) has traveled from the UK to Saigon - a city he barely remembers - to settle family affairs and scatter the ashes of his parents, who took the family to Britain some three decades prior and barely spoke of their Vietnam home.
But Monsoon is less concerned with the particulars of Kit’s journey than the how that journey affects Kit: carefully observational, slowly-paced and understated to the point of being barely-there, the film nevertheless creates an intimate, moving portrait of a man slowly coming to terms with his personal identity.
In Saigon, Kit meets Lee (David Tran), a childhood friend he hasn’t seen in three decades who, perhaps, represents a left-behind counterpart to Kit’s protagonist. Lee takes Kit on a tour of the areas in Saigon he has faint memories of, which have completely changed during the years that he’s been away.
Kit also hooks up with American Lewis (Parker Sawyers), a Saigon expatriate he presumably found through a dating app. Like Kit, Lewis has his own reasons that have brought him to Saigon, slowly revealed as the relationship between the two develops.
And in Hanoi, his parent’s home city, Kit meets the friendly Linh (Molly Harris), who takes him on a tour of her family’s lotus tea facility. In Linh’s relationship with her parents - she feels indebted to continue the family business, despite yearning for something more - he might recognize something akin to his own relationship with his parents.
It’s the parallels between Kit and the characters he meets, slowly developed throughout the movie, that give Monsoon some of its greatest insights: all these characters have particular reasons for being in Vietnam, and yet Kit, despite his heritage, is now something of a tourist - in more ways than one.
Director Khao also asks a lot from his lead here: Kit is something of a blank slate throughout the film, and there’s a lot that goes unsaid that the audience needs to read into the character. But star Golding is mostly up to the task, and the result is a tender, empathetic performance that slowly wins us over during the course of the film.
Monsoon is also aided greatly by some first-rate photography of Saigon and Hanoi that dives in deeper than the usual travelogue. Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun nicely contrasts the two cities, one a modernized metropolis while the other has retained more of its historical character.
An assured, delicately-handled character study comprised of a series of vignettes as opposed to a more story-driven narrative, Monsoon won’t resonate with all audiences; the slow, even lethargic pacing and general lack of story will be enough to put some off. But for those willing to invest in the film and its lead character, Monsoon offers supple rewards.