Film Review: Monsoon (2019)

Henry Golding, who has achieved mainstream fame starring in big-budget Hollywood movies like Crazy Rich Asians, A Simple Favor and Last Christmas, comes back to a more grounded film in Monsoon by British-Cambodian director Hong Khaou, and takes a few leaps in trying out a homosexual role in an LGBT film, and getting intimate on screen. But more than just another gay romance, Monsoon is also a drama about identity and impact on second-generation immigrants much akin to The Kite Runner (both the novel and its film adaptation) and also the recent The Farewell (2019) starring Awkwafina. 

The opening scene of the film is an overhead shot of the traffic in Vietnam. The criss-cross, haphazard paths that the motor vehicles take without any traffic lights, reminding one of Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing, seems an allusion to the nature of Vietnam itself - chaotic yet systematically organised in its own way. This opening shot is breathtaking and achieves the aim of preparing us for what is about to come in the film - a Vietnamese-turned-British wandering through the streets of Vietnam without a firm direction and rediscovering his identity. 

As evidenced above, Vietnam as a locality, plays a huge part in the film, almost like a character. The mise-en-scène of the streets and stunning cinematography comprising of long tracking shots add to the locality as an unspoken character. In one scene, Kit (Henry Golding's character) moves from the ground floor to the second floor, out and back into the camera, with the camera holding still on the building facade, almost like a tribute to the locality. In other parts of the film, Kit is also often seen looking out of his flat from the balcony, in a wide shot, framing him against the larger landscape in a deliberate fashion.

Monsoon explores what happens when a second generation emigrant returns to his birth country and the sense of disconnection and culture shock. When spending time with Linh, someone of the same generation but raised in Vietnam, Kit is confronted with a 'Sliding Doors' thought about the vastly different life he could have faced if he stayed in Vietnam like Linh. The same can be said for an encounter with Vietnamese childhood friend Lee, who related that his family tried to emigrate out of Vietnam too but unfortunately did not get their application accepted. Then on a train, in an ironic case of mistaken identity, Kit connected with a fellow young British man who assumed he was local until he heard the unmistakable British accent.

The other half of Monsoon is focused on a little budding romance between Kit and Lewis, a black African American man, who was left behind by his father, an American soldier in the Vietnam War. Lewis shares many similarities with Kit, mainly with both of them are from composite cultures and this seems to fuel the development of their romantic relationship. No stranger to LGBT content, Hong Khaou had earlier made Lilting, an LGBT film about familial roots and sexual identity, which played to critical acclaim.

The film is sensitive to natural soundscape of Vietnam and it seems as if the film talks in its own language through the noise of the traffic. The camera work also captures the beautiful lights of the city, with one scene in particular featuring a long tracking shot of Kit riding pillion on a motorbike across a long bridge with huge colourful neon lights arching overhead.

All in all, Monsoon is a enjoyable film both for its beautiful cinematography and for its thematic explorations. It functions as a good reflection of the past and a reconciliation with the present and the future. It does have a little tragic payoff towards the end of the film when we finally understand the contents of a box that Kit had brought all the way from England to Vietnam. The film however, chooses to end with some twinkle of hope in the romance between Kit and Lewis, as both men look out towards the night lights as the film's parting shot.

Finally, I have a little take on the title. A monsoon, by definition a seasonal reversing wind, could be symbolic of Kit's migration from Vietnam to Britain years ago followed by his return again in his adulthood. 

Written by Tan Boon Wah who publishes film reviews at https://tanboonwah.wordpress.com/

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