★★★★ / ★★★★
Kit left his birth country at the age of six; I left mine at the age of eleven. He did not return for thirty years; I did not return for twenty-one. There is something about “Monsoon,” written and directed by Hong Khaou, that excels at locating the pulse of split identity without relying on melodrama. In fact, it is so relaxed with its storytelling that viewers can claim that “nothing much happens” and they would be right. At least when judging only from the outside. This is a film that requires those looking in to be participants: to absorb and consider the circumstances on screen while thinking back on one’s personal history when one felt to be living at the margins.
As the British-Vietnamese Kit surveys Saigon, the city he once called his home, I, a Filipino-American, thought about my return to Olongapo, Philippines exactly a year ago. At nearly every given moment, I knew precisely how Kit felt because everything had changed so much that it is like walking around a different planet. Gone are places of comfort, of laughter, of peace. In their place are buildings, or markets, or just another trash heap. Consistent is the noise of revving vehicles, incessant honking, the busy-buzzing chattering on the streets. The picture benefits greatly from having been shot on location.
What is the story about? On the surface, it appears to be about Kit retuning to Vietnam to find an appropriate place—a meaningful place—where he and his brother, scheduled to arrive a week upon Kit’s arrival, can scatter their parents’ ashes. Their family escaped the country after the Vietnam War. Kit recalls that one day he is living in Vietnam and the next he is on a boat belonging to no country. He felt he had been stripped away from his homeland and lost something along the way. So, upon closer inspection, the story is about a man looking for that something he had lost. But the more interesting question is: What if he doesn’t find it?
And so we follow Kit visiting familiar places. Although there is an occasional murmur of happiness upon visual recognition, notice how that joy is evanescent. It made me think of when I had a chance to lay eyes on my childhood home—I was elated for a second… and then I could no longer look at it. Perhaps it was due to the stark difference between what was embedded in my memory and the reality that faced me. The gap between the two is so substantial that you can’t help but to feel a certain sadness, emptiness even, for not having been there to experience its evolution. Kit finds no solace in the places he knew and so the next step is to come to terms with the fact that the past had moved on without him just as he moved on from his past, his heritage, in order to thrive somewhere else. The parallels between his experience and mine astounded me. Not even a third of the way through, I felt I understood the protagonist with utmost clarity.
But that is not all there is to Kit. Kit is a gay man who can pass as a straight man, which further emphasizes his life of living in the margins, but he chooses not to. There is a beauty about the way this character is written because although he is undergoing a time of deep reflection in regard to his cultural identity, Kit is a person who is free because he has embraced an important part of who he is. At the same time, we can recognize that his self-acceptance took a lot of effort and through many years. Henry Golding plays Kit with terrific but understated energy. His interpretation of Kit is that the character is wounded but strong, lonely sometimes but full of deep thoughts and feelings. I hope that Golding continues to choose challenging roles like this. It suits him.
Every person that Kit encounters has an interesting story. There is Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an American, who immigrated to Vietnam to start his own clothing business. Lewis is gay and he reciprocates Kit’s attraction. But they’re more than that; we feel that they can actually be friends outside of the occasional hookup. Speaking of friends, Lee (David Tran) is Kit’s childhood friend who speaks English very well. We suspect that he still feels a strong connection to Kit, but it is unclear whether Kit feels the same. And then there is Linh (Molly Marris), a tour guide for art exhibits. We learn a bit about her home life and what her family expects of her. What I found fascinating is that although this character comes across like a strange addition at first, she is actually relevant to the overall theme of one feeling like an outsider. Kit recognizes fragments of himself in Lewis, Lee, and Linh. And that is why their interactions command intrigue.
“Monsoon” is for the mature audience. The storm is not on the outside but on the inside. So those who choose to dive in are required to watch with an introspective eye and mind. And to understand the protagonist completely, we must appreciate that he is a man of silence; a thinker whose mode of communication is the eyes and the occasional smile. The writer-director’s decision to muffle the emotions is the correct choice because it inspires those who really wish to know or understand to lean in that much closer. I was touched by this film in ways I did not at all expect. Its patience reminded me of Kogonada’s zen film “Columbus.”