If you’ve wondered what it would be like if Crazy Rich Asian’s star Henry Golding played a character who wasn’t surrounded by Hollywood stars and glitzy production design, then Monsoon may be right for you. It’s a story about a young British Vietnamese man who returns to Ho Chi Minh city for the first time in 30 years after his family fled the country during the Vietnam-American war. The film often lacks an absorbing plot but features the beginning of a relationship between two men that is so vibrant with chemistry that it makes up for the meandering story.
Kit (Henry Golding) arrives in Ho Chi Minh city to the chaos of unstructured traffic. He rents an apartment during his stay and places a box of ashes on the shelf by the TV. During the day, he strolls aimlessly around a market looking reserved and lost, until he arrives at the apartment of his cousin, who he hasn’t seen in over thirty years. The awkward encounter is underscored by the loss of time, that Kit’s disappearance from Vietnam was a surprise to the family left behind, and they may not have even recognized him on the street.
He sits with his long lost aunt and cousin, a year after his mother has died, and pulls out presents from his backpack: a bottle of whiskey and a water-filtering bottle. The uncomfortableness of gifts he thought could be useful bares a striking weight when he puts them on the table. He lived a more privileged life in London, and his offerings are a reflection of the disparity between him and his Vietnamese family.
That evening, Kit meets a handsome black man, Lewis (Parker Sawyers), at a bar, and they slowly get to know one another beyond the confines of a dating app. It doesn't take long before they're in the apartment passionately eating each other up, showing us Kit at his most animated. But the next day, as he wanders around the city searching for landmarks he visited with his parents, Kit's rhythm is out of sync with the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh. What he is looking for is not just a place to spread his mother’s ashes, but the familiarity of a home his family fled.
He is invited to an art show by Lewis and relishes in this mature young man who may just understand his wounds. Kit decides to take a trip to Hanoi to see where his parents grew up and Lewis offers to drive him to the station. When they arrive, it's clear that these two men want more time to explore each other and this connection. In Hanoi, Kit meets with a young tour guide he encountered at the art show, Linh, who gives him a taste of Vietnamese family life. In a beautiful scene where her family sits around cutting and sorting lotus flowers, a tradition that has been with her family for generations, Kit shares a story of his mother’s choice to live in London. The memory seemingly conjured because he has given himself the space to recall it, and it brings about his beautiful smile that only appears when he speaks about people he loves.
What Monsoon lacks in plot it certainly makes up for in tone and authenticity. Director/Writer Hong Khaou is enamored with maintaining a feeling of a city and the palpability of being surrounded by continuous movement. Kit’s advantage is recognizing landmarks from his younger years, but his attachment to Ho Chi Minh City ends there. In meeting Lewis, Kit can form new connections within the country, and it happens to be with someone equally as bruised from how the Vietnam War affected his family. While his homecoming to Vietnam struggles to move beyond touristic, he starts to understand that his relationships to family and the city haven't disappeared to generational trauma. What was difficult for his parents to talk about is something he can seek to understand for himself.
In his previous film Lilting, Director/Writer Hong Khaou explored a young man's grief after his lover dies, and much of that film unfolds through silences and misty-eyed gazes. Monsoon suffers a similar fate as it struggles to make the dialogue as authentic as its surroundings, and conversations between Kit and Linh can feel over-written and unnecessarily expositional. The film is often at its strongest when it maintains focus on Kit and the wounds dividing him from his cousins living and working in Vietnam. The stunning cinematography by Benjamin Kracun lives in each moment with locals on the street, tilting to meet Kit as he appears in the frame. It’s an honest depiction of day-to-day life in Ho Chi Minh, and how Kit's journey blends into his surroundings.
Of course, Monsoon relies on the star power of Henry Golding for viewership but survives because he is so good in this film. His confusion and awkwardness arriving in a city he previously called home is countered beautifully with Skype calls with his brother and nephews. While we don’t see them on the computer screen, we see Kit’s warm smile light up the room, his family giving him both comfort and hope. This small story limits our access to Kit’s life, but Golding’s chemistry with Parker Sawyers is delicious and worth viewing for the tender love story alone.
While this film may not have set box office numbers alight, it’s one that stands firmly in the same category as Lulu Wang's The Farewell. It can be purposely vague on details and may not resonate too broadly, but Monsoon is an appealing escape with a courageous man searching for his roots while grieving for his mother and falling in love.