Why would a Cambodian-British director like Hong Khaou want to make a film about Vietnam? This question lingered in my mind as I watched the trailer for “Monsoon,” piquing my curiosity and compelling me to see the movie. Not because I expected a masterpiece, but simply to witness how Vietnam would be portrayed through the eyes of foreigners.
A Captivating Journey of Rediscovery in ” Monsoon “
To my surprise, “Monsoon” exceeded my expectations; it turned out to be quite remarkable. Some may find the film to be a bit “bland,” lacking a traditional climax. Yet, it beautifully captures the journey of a Vietnamese-British man returning to his homeland to reclaim a part of his identity and heritage. The film’s subtlety and gentle atmosphere evoke a sense of loss and melancholy. While it may not boast dramatic twists or extravagant emotions, “Monsoon” gracefully conveys its intended atmosphere. The shots depicting the streets of Saigon and Hanoi, along with the everyday lives of urban Vietnamese, feel authentic and rustic. Despite occasionally resembling a travel documentary, “Monsoon” deliberately avoids presenting an idealized view, opting for realism instead, which resonates with the Vietnamese audience.
In the lead role, Henry Golding surprises with his princely charm, reminiscent of his character in “Crazy Rich Asians.” However, as a Vietnamese-British man, he does not appear conventionally Vietnamese. His tall, prominent physique and posh British accent hint at his Western origins rather than his Asian heritage. Although he might not possess the typical Vietnamese features, Golding’s portrayal of a man in search of his identity remains convincing. His character is a true product of privilege, a contrast to his co-star David Tran, an overseas Vietnamese playing a pure Vietnamese man. Tran’s portrayal captures the essence of Vietnam—timid, apprehensive, with a hint of fear and anticipation.
Embracing Disconnection and Rediscovering Bonds in “Monsoon”
Golding’s appearance, seemingly out of place in the Vietnamese setting, actually aligns perfectly with the film’s intention. “Monsoon” revolves around a man disconnected from his homeland, carrying the burden of being taught to forget its past, and struggling to find an elusive sense of identity. Golding’s bewildered demeanor and expressions of underlying sadness resonate with the character’s internal struggle.
The protagonist, a Vietnamese-British man, embarks on this poignant journey only after his parents, who fled and bore resentment toward the regime, have passed away. Bereft of the opportunity to ask them about Vietnam, he seeks remnants of the past through encounters with elderly individuals and objects. Unfortunately, the Vietnam he encounters has undergone significant transformations, leaving him uncertain about the true purpose of his quest. As an outsider to the culture and a homosexual returning to a predominantly heterosexual society, his sense of disconnection deepens.
The encounter with an American of color, whose father was a Vietnam veteran, offers consolation and a fleeting sense of relief, forging a bond between two souls in search of themselves within an alien society. This relationship echoes the camaraderie seen in “Lost in Translation” between two Americans—one young and one old—in Japan. While “Monsoon” may not reach the level of an absolute masterpiece, it possesses a certain charm that evokes emotions, especially when viewed at the right moment and in the right mood.
Through my research, I discovered that director Hong Khaou spent his childhood in Vietnam before finding refuge in the UK. This personal connection to the country adds an intriguing layer to “Monsoon’s” portrayal of Vietnam, as it reflects a blend of outsider perspective and a touch of familiarity.