Henry Golding stars as a man returning to his country of birth in this thoughtful, entrancing travelogue from filmmaker Hong Khaou
“I feel like a tourist,” says Henry Golding's lost traveller, who has returned to his native Vietnam following the passing of his parents. He hasn't been back in thirty years – not since his family fled to England as “boat people” in the aftermath of the war. Arriving in Saigon, he finds himself doing the touristy things. He takes a trip to the Củ Chi tunnels. He visits the temples. He swigs beer on the roadside as a relentless army of mopeds whizz by. What he's searching for is a connection to the past. But modern Vietnam is changing at such a rapid rate, he's told. Is there anything left of the country his parents left behind?
Writer-director Hong Khaou – known for his tender drama Lilting – helms this quiet and contemplative travelogue with an understated but careful hand. As British-Vietnamese Kit, tasked with finding the ideal place to spread his parents' ashes before his brother flies in to join him, Golding (in a completely different gear to his work in Crazy Rich Asians and The Gentleman) gives an effective but nearly mute lead performance, relying instead on his thoughtful expression to do most of the talking. It's a trip that will take him from Saigon, to visit his cousin, all the way to the opposite end of the country, to Hanoi, where his family originate (38 hours away by train).
Set amongst a backdrop of endless hustle and bustle, it's the smaller moments – those touching on aspects of cultural identity and displacement – that really stick with you. Like when Kit meets a young tour guide (Molly Harris) and is surprised to learn that, in spite of her perfect American accent, she's Vietnamese. Later, a Frenchman assumes Kit is a local and addresses him in that slow, patronising voice tourists often adopt in order to speak to foreigners (the aftermath is appropriately awkward). Elsewhere, Khaou is happy to linger and invite our own interpretations. Sat across from an elderly lady with her nose buried in a book, Kit looks on and smiles. Does she remind him of his mother?
Khaou weaves in a romantic storyline, too. Mere hours into his visit, Kit turns to Tinder and sets up a date with the gentle but insecure African-American Lewis (Parker Sawyers), who's also grappling with his own ties to the country – specifically his father's involvement in the war. Kindred spirits in a place both men feel compelled to call home but can't quite get to grips with, their sweet but slightly hesitant relationship fades in and out (and then in again) over the course of the film's short, 86 minute runtime.
At times there's an artificiality to the interactions and the dialogue, though I suspect this could well have been a purposeful choice, as to emphasise the atmosphere of alienation. In its study of ennui and scenes of aimless, city-wide wandering, the film also evokes the dreamy jet lag vibes of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. But while Moonson has none of that film's humour to make up for the low-key narrative (its characters are almost unnaturally serious), Kit's inner conflict holds enough weight to stop it from ever feeling flimsy. And while Monsoon's level-headed view of modern Vietnam is captured with clinical camerawork, Khaou does ultimately paint a vivid, attractive picture of the country, the camera loosening up – switching from static to handheld – as Kit grows more comfortable with his surroundings.
Making peace with Monsoon's slow pace and its rejection of neat conclusions is key to getting the most out of the experience. As Kit himself comes to realise, the answers aren't always easy; some things just take a bit of time.
Monsoon is now showing in select UK cinemas and is available on various streaming services.Where to watch