There has been a wave of recent films handling the theme of being a second generation immigrant, that have managed to beautifully articulate the disconnect from a culture the characters didn’t grow up in. From Lulu Wang’s The Farewell to a more recent British offering like Shola Amoo’s The Last Tree, filmmakers are telling bold, largely autobiographical stories rooted in their relationship with their culture, that tap into a more universal feeling of alienation. Hong Khaou’s long awaited follow up to his debut Lilting is another addition to this new canon of films – a quiet but affecting character study that documents one man’s relationship with a home country and wider family he hasn’t visited since he was a child.
The difference between Monsoon and the other films previously mentioned is that Khaou spent the lengthy writing period of the film minimising any aspects of autobiography, going so far as to make his lead character have Vietnamese heritage, as opposed to his own Cambodian ties. The film’s strength might be that, because of the stripped down intimacy of the drama, it still feels like a personal film – tapping into relatable themes of cultural disconnects and detachment from the wider world, but all within a highly specific character study that probes at one man’s difficult relationship with his home country.
Kit (Henry Golding) left Vietnam for Britain when he was just eight years old. Decades later, and he’s returning there for the first time to scatter his parents’ ashes, discovering that the relationship with his family in Saigon can never be truly salvaged – there’s a language barrier, and an unspoken bitterness about the fact Kit never reached out to contact his extended family for years. As he embarks on a personal journey, he meets Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an American tourist who has his own troubled relationship with the country, as he feels secondary guilt about his father fighting in the Vietnam War.
This latter detail is particularly interesting, an otherwise secondary character note that reverberates across the whole drama. In the original drafts of Khaou’s screenplay, Lewis was a white character, but was changed to African American in the later stages for fear of treading overly familiar thematic ground, not wanting to dramatise another troubled relationship between a white American and somebody with heritage in a country that was forced into conflict with the US. This aspect of Monsoon is all the more compelling when part of a non-white character’s arc, stripping the characterisation of overly simplified themes of white guilt, creating something richer and far more complex about the concept of cultural identity.
But the entire film rests on the shoulders of Golding. After starting his career hosting travel documentaries for the small screen, he made the unlikely transition to Hollywood leading man status seemingly overnight with Crazy Rich Asians, showcasing a natural movie star charisma that was all the more impressive for being only his second acting credit. With Monsoon (remarkably, only his fourth performance) he dials back that innate charm to depict a man detached from the city around him, struggling to connect with the people around him. Parker Sawyers perfectly compliments this in his performance, using charm to paper over his more problematic traits, but I imagine even he would admit that his role wouldn’t be as effective were he not playing off an uncharacteristically brooding turn from Golding. Between Monsoon and The Farewell, it’s been a banner year for Crazy Rich Asians stars straying from their comedic comfort zones for quieter culture clash dramas.
Monsoon is a slow burner, but it lingers in the memory long after.