Earlier this year, Netflix released Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s heist flick war drama mash-up that saw four US soldiers revisit Vietnam for the first time since the war. While their quest to recover a treasure of gold bars previously presumed lost eventually erupted into a shower of blood, bullets and explosions, as typical for its filmmaker it had a lot on its mind. This included the lingering impact of the Vietnam War and how the country’s citizens continue to honour the past while incorporating new cultures into their way of being.
Addressing some of the same themes – but without the bloodshed – is intimate drama Monsoon, the latest from writer-director Hong Khaou (Lilting). The movie centres on Kit (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians) who returns to Ho Chi Minh City from Britain for the first time since he was six years old when his family fled the country in the aftermath of the war.
There to find the right place to scatter his late parents’ ashes, he feels like a stranger in a land he once knew, a place he does not recognise anymore. We follow Kit as he connects with old friends, learns more about how the country of his birth has changed and begins a romance with African American man Lewis (Parker Sawyers, Barrack Obama in Southside with You). The son of a US Marine who fought in the war, Lewis is now a fashion designer setting up a factory in the region.
Inspired by its director’s past – Cambodian Chinese by birth, Khaou’s family spent his childhood in Vietnam before fleeing again to England when he was eight – Monsoon will resonate with people who had similar upbringings. Growing up in England, Kit never felt like he quite belonged and assumed he would find his sense of identity and that comforting feeling only home can provide in Vietnam. However, feeling like a tourist drifting through a land he can barely remember just makes him feel more melancholic.
Khaou’s direction enhances Kit’s isolation, while also immersing audiences in the environments he finds himself. In exterior scenes, the often still or slowly moving camera captures Golding’s character at various moments from afar, a figure overwhelmed by the bustling city streets – at one point the main character describes the place as “intense, relentless.” Meanwhile, one interior scene sees Kit alone gazing outside his hotel window, the whole glistening city reflected onto him.
The character of Kit could in lesser hands be too much of a sad sack. Yet, the casting of Henry Golding – a rising star known for radiating A-list charisma – helps brighten proceedings. While it is certainly the most muted turn the Last Christmas star has given to date, he is given a chance to emit some warmth in scenes in which he video calls his relatives in Britain or as he bonds with the people he meets in Vietnam.
As Kit deals with his inner turmoil, Khaou surrounds the character with figures who play important roles both narratively and thematically. His old friend and second cousin Lee (David Tran) helps Kit piece together the gaps in his childhood memories while giving him a sense of what his life would have been like had he stayed in the country. The tour guide Linh (Molly Harris) that Kit meets in Hanoi serves to represent the new Vietnam, desiring to start her own business instead of being part of her family’s traditional tea-making enterprise. Meanwhile, Lewis represents the scars of the US-Vietnam war, his father one of the many who struggled when he returned to civilian life – the segment of the film which most closely evokes Spike Lee’s Vietnam-set drama.
Khaou lets all these ideas and themes be explored for viewers through long conversations and nicely observed moments rather than through any artificial conflict or drama. It is a respectful and humane choice, although it is difficult not to feel audiences might have been more compelled if the film was less subtle and reserved and owned Kit’s anger a tad more.
However, like its more righteously furious counterpart Da 5 Bloods, Monsoon is a film that lingers in viewers’ minds after the credits roll. While at first its ending feels abrupt, on closer analysis it is a lovely bow on the issues Khaou raises throughout. After all, home does not have to be a physical place. It can be the people we surround ourselves with.