In Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Henry Golding plays the type of man who springs to life in comic books and Hollywood movies. The character of Nick Young is, essentially, a version of Bruce Wayne, if Wayne’s parents hadn’t been killed. Without the all-consuming need for vengeance, Golding embodied the physical perfection and idealized vision of a wealthy playboy. Young is good looking and gracious, intelligent and humble. He smolders like Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy but without his rougher edges. The camera flattered his features and his physique from every possible angle.
After his performance as an ideal suitor and husband-in-waiting, Golding returns to the screen as a leading man in Hong Khaou’s Monsoon. Khaou (Lilting, 2014), however, immediately brings the actor down-to-earth. Golding plays Kit, a British Vietnamese man who’s in mourning. He arrives back in Vietnam after a 30-year absence. His parents fled the country during the war, settled in England and never returned. Kit’s there to scatter their ashes and to reconnect with his origin story.
The lighting in Crazy Rich Asians purified the actors’ faces, flooding the screen with golden sunlight by day and drenching it in lapis lazuli by night. Even the meteorological atmosphere was flush with cash. If someone displayed a blemish, it was an indication of a profound character flaw. Khaou’s film humanizes Golding. He’s rumpled, unshaven, unsure of himself. The director frames Kit in a perpetual twilight, shadowboxing with his multiple identities.
Kit’s disoriented when we meet him, suffering from grief and jet lag. He’s unfamiliar with Saigon and he doesn’t speak Vietnamese. After settling into a short-term rental, he looks up an old family friend. Lee (David Tran) reacquaints Kit with the neighborhood they grew up in, filling him in on how much the country has changed since he’s been away in England. Khaou’s film seems to prime Kit for a series of revelations and resolutions. But the director has something much less linear and more elliptical in mind.
The scenes are loosely constructed, linked together like a series of tourist snapshots in a family photo album. Conversations are routine, transactional, meant to convey surface information. Monsoon is unhurried in the way of a travel documentary, wide-ranging enough to take in crowded city streets and lusher vistas of the countryside. It’s an anti-melodramatic film that carefully foregrounds Kit’s story against the tragic background of a country recovering from war.
Khaou doesn’t turn Kit’s trip into a capital “Q” quest like the one Julia Roberts enjoys in Eat Pray Love (2010). Kit explores the city and, as he makes a few acquaintances, gets acclimated to the culture and pace of life in Vietnam. But after his forays out in public, the director finds Kit in thoughtful contemplation or napping and sleeping back in his flat or in a hotel. When he interacts with people, Kit is sociable and well-liked but Khaou presents both sides of the character’s bifurcated mood. Kit begins to find some joy in life while still contending with a profound depression when he’s alone.
Without reducing the Vietnam War to one man’s healing journey, Khaou does suggest that Kit’s process is running parallel to the one he’s witnessing in a revitalized Vietnam. When Kit meets an American man for a drink that turns into a hookup, he finds out that Lewis’ (Parker Sawyers) father fought in the war. If Monsoon was a plot-driven film, the romance between them would feel more epic than it does. The cultural conflicts — how each man has come to understand and interpret the war — quickly and quietly recede.
Lewis may or may not become Kit’s longtime love interest. But marriage isn’t on Kit’s mind. He’s floating in a neutral space, only available for his own thoughts and reveries. In comparison, Nick Young was an open book, a fantasy object, yes, but an attainable one — at least for Constance Wu. This dose of realism that Monsoon constructs around Golding makes him seem imperfect and often unknowable. In this role, he steps out of the super hero role to become a mere mortal, and that much more relatable.
Stream Monsoon here and choose a local theater to support.