A film of such quality that it asks to be judged as a work of art.



It was in 2018 that the Cambodian writer/director Hong Khaou made an impact with his first feature, Lilting. He now follows that with Monsoon, an uncompromising work which more than confirms the promise apparent then. Set mainly in Saigon but with a side trip to Hanoi, Monsoon has aspects which relate closely to Hong's own experiences. As a child of eight he left Cambodia and came to this country by way of Vietnam and the central figure in this film, Kit (Henry Golding), albeit Vietnam-born, is somebody who together with his family including his parents and his brother left his homeland at a comparably early age. In the first scenes of Monsoon, Kit returns to Saigon for the first time finding a city which has a special claim on his memories but which is now so transformed that he feels himself an outsider. That's so despite being able to visit the old family house and to renew acquaintance with Lee (David Tran) who had been a playmate in his childhood.


Monsoon is a film soaked in atmosphere (it was shot on location in Vietnam) and it is fully emotionally expressive too: it makes us feel Kit's sense of estrangement in what is nevertheless a place which on account of his roots is a part of him. If the film is potent in this respect, it needs to be because Hong is slow to clarify why Kit has returned (there is very little dialogue in the opening scenes). Eventually we do come to realise that Kit has with him his mother's ashes and that he is looking for a suitable place to scatter them. During this time Kit, who is gay, meets another outsider but one now living in Saigon, a black American named Lewis (Parker Sawyers). Theirs is a relationship that could amount to more than just a sexual encounter but, if the past haunts Kit, it also affects Lewis since he can't forget that his father served in Vietnam during the war.


That long opening section of Monsoon with its minimal dialogue illustrates Hong's daring but also the quality of his work. Earlier this year End of the Century started out with a comparably minimalistic sequence which proved extremely uninvolving whereas, if one is capable of being receptive to this kind of cinema, Monsoon holds one fascinated. If much is owed to the emotional and atmospheric richness already noted, our fascination is also due to Hong's strong cinematic sense for telling images and, if Benjamin Kracun's photography further contributes here, so does the editing which is by Hong himself. 


Golding is excellent having no problem at all in carrying the weight placed on him and the other players are fine too. The film's subtlety extends to a sequence about lotus tea, something now linked with past times in Vietnam and thus another example of how things change over the years. Such details add to the impact, but I do feel that both the issues connected with the past (how appropriate is it to scatter the ashes in Vietnam?) and those of the present (how much can Kit and Lewis offer each other?) call for rather more of a resolution than Hong provides. For that reason, I regard Monsoon as less than a masterpiece, but it is nevertheless full of masterly things.




Cast: Henry Golding, Parker Sawyers, Molly Harris, David Tran, Ho Nhi, Olivia Hearn, Edouard Leo, Peter Phan, Nicola Taggart, Lâm Anh Dào, Lamou Vissay, Phan Bao Ngoc, Vo Lien, Nguyen Myan.


Dir Hong Khaou, Pro Tracy O'Riordan, Screenplay Hong Khaou, Ph Benjamin Kracun, Pro Des Miren Marañón Tejedor, Ed Mark Towns, Music John Cummings, Costumes Adam Howe.


BBC Films/BFI/Moonspun Films/Passion Pictures-Peccadillo Pictures.
85 mins. UK/USA. 2019. Rel: 25 September 2020. Available in cinemas and BFI Players and other digital platforms. Cert. 12A.