Director Hong Khaou’s second feature follows a subdued ambience akin to that of his debut film Lilting, exploring themes of isolation and alienation. In this instance, one’s loss of cultural identity, a side-effect of migration. A cross that weighs heavily on 30-something gay man Kit (Henry Golding), judging by his melancholic disposition as he traverses through strikingly frenetic Vietnamese cities in a bid to reconnect with his war-torn childhood.
Monsoon is set solely in the hustle and bustle of urban city centres with over-crowded markets and bass thumping bars; juxtaposing the refuge found in the silent haven of his minimalist hotel rooms and empty Airbnb flats. There’s none of the usual rural off-the-beaten tracks or tropical beach settings, even though the essence of lush far east tropics is omnipresent. The sweat-inducing humidity, the constant reverberating sound of traffic, along with pervasive equatorial greenery and ubiquitous sunlight, captured precisely by Benjamin Kracun’s (cinematographer) measured camera movements, panning out in a mediative pace to reveal the splendour of local daily life.
Kit hasn’t visited Vietnam since his family first migrated to the UK. Wishing to spread his mother’s ashes back in her native country; he takes this an opportunity to relink himself with places where he grew up and long-lost family and friends. His contemplative, almost down-trodden outlook insinuates symptoms of depression, even though we never arrive to any conclusion of the sort. We assume this aloofness is there to reflect Kit’s sense of irrepressible detachment with his place of birth.
This lackadaisical manner comes off as unemotional, a reason you never fully warm to him. This aimless pseudo soul-searching provides nothing but a loose narrative thread, as there is very little by way of plot, and in any case what is, is thoroughly unconvincing. Golding overplays Kit by exaggeratingly underplaying him. Even when we discover his homosexual leanings, his deadpan, obvious straightness, makes it an incredibly underwhelming revelation. There is no semblance of gayness. The subsequent sex scenes feel performative and mechanical, lacking in any soul or intensity.
There is no evidence to suggest that his sexuality was an issue with his family back in the UK. There’s an experienced care-free-ness to his Grindr hook-up/ come non-committal fling with Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an American running a fashion business in Saigon. As well as several other hook-ups along the way. We do get an inclining, when he refrains from divulging that personal information to a suspecting family friend. A plausible touch by Khaou to hint at more internal conflict.
The moments of interaction with others lift Kit from his perpetual introspection, revealing a lighter, animated side; such as the midnight Skype calls to his brother and young nephews. Yet it’s the dialogue in all of his exchanges that prove most challenging. It’s rather anaemic and artificial; stuffed with superfluous exposition, reeking of contrivances and leaving very little to suggestion. Aggravated further by a casual stride, which wouldn’t be bothersome if conversations weren’t so stilted and forced.
Specifically in discussions with Lewis, they pertain to some loosely explored guilt-ridden backstory of his father being a Vietnam war veteran, further adding to the mix the fact he set up shop in Vietnam to utilise its cheap labour. All in bid to introduce some superficial socio-political antagonism into the dynamics of their relation; an attempt that proves a little cringeworthy.
At face value it’s a stunning film, littered with gorgeous symbolic moments of everyday city life; pitting ever so subtly the old Vietnam, traditional scenes of lotus tea-making, against the modern-day Vietnam, a contemperary art tour of Hanoy. All positioned to discern and visualize Kit’s identity crisis and the unsettling feelings of loss of cultural heritage. And it almost works, but not quite.
Monsoon is released in cinemas and digital – 25th September.