It’s easy to forget that Henry Golding’s chiseled movie star looks and magnetic on-screen charisma have only been known to us for a few years; his breakout role, as the handsome (and very wealthy) Nick Young in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, will likely be the biggest of his career for years to come. One of his first roles since that breakout is in Hong Khaou’s Monsoon, the story of a grown son who returns to his native Vietnam to bring his mother’s ashes home after more than thirty years since his family fled the war-torn country. As Kit, Golding gets to explore a number of character elements he wasn’t afforded in the polished blockbuster that made him a household name, an opportunity any actor would relish and Golding fully embraces. Though the film as a whole lacks a certain sense of confidence, teetering just nearly into the preachy, it ultimately serves as a thoughtful exploration of a life displaced and a more than worthy vehicle for Golding’s evolving talents.
Kit arrives in Vietnam without much fanfare, finding his way alone from the airport to his hotel, where he settles in as best he can, setting the small box with his mother’s ashes on a shelf next to the room’s television. The next day, before meeting with family friends he knew when he was a child, Kit explores the neighborhood where he spent his earliest years. It’s a beautiful sequence, cinematographer Benjamin Kracun (who most recently filmed the pulsating coming-of-age drama Beats) capturing the energy of a city’s daily life happening all around Kit, lost in his own nostalgia and grief. This attention to exceptional framing is maintained throughout the film, from a thoughtful slow pan across the room to clever shifts in perspective that all go far to create a vibrant sense of place, even one as foreign as this one is to Kit.
Kit’s awkwardness in returning is evident early on as he visits those family friends, Lee (David Tran) and his aging mother. The men used to play together as children, we learn, as Lee translates Kit’s English for his mother, who only speaks Vietnamese. It’s clear Kit feels bad he doesn’t have the language at his disposal anymore, another reminder of how far removed he is from his heritage. Lee catches Kit up on their lives in the decades since their neighbors left, and their presence grounds Kit’s connection to the place; at one point, he asks Lee if he has any old photos of their family before they immigrated to the UK, a poignant reminder of how much was left behind when they escaped in a hurry.
As Kit spends his days exploring his past, he uses the nights to socialize, meeting up with Lewis (Parker Sawyers, Southside With Me) at a bar near his hotel. A dating app connection, their early encounter becomes another tether Kit has to the country, as he shares the fact that he’s recently quit his job in computer animation and has therefore left his trip open-ended. What starts as a hook-up quickly evolves into a genuine friendship, Lewis sharing his own family’s history during the war and tying the American experience into the film’s over-arching narrative. While it’s interesting to receive this backstory, these are the moments where Khaou’s script risks losing the audience in its sermons.
As Kit grows more comfortable in the country of his birth, traveling to Hanoi to find the perfect place to distribute his mother’s ashes, the film settles into a rhythm of its own, exploring Kit’s experience as someone who looks like he should be a local but very clearly is not. Out as a tourist one day, he connects with a Vietnamese tour guide who speaks perfect English, raised there by parents with exacting standards. Her experience is a sort of eery mirror to the life Kit had, and its easy to imagine Kit thinking about how different his whole life would be had his family stayed.
In the end, Monsoon is carried by the combination of Golding’s sensitive and moving performance and the beauty evoked in Khaou’s vision of Vietnam. Taken together, they offer a beautifully insightful journey through a pivotal moment in Kit’s life, one recognizable to anyone who’s navigated those uncertain moments of adulthood that come to define certain phases of life. Khaou’s last film, Lilting, was released nearly seven years ago; while it’s not perfect, if it takes the filmmaker that long to conjure something as tender and meaningful as Monsoon, it’s worth the wait.
Monsoon is now playing in Music Box Theatre’s virtual cinema. A portion of your rental goes to support the theater.
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