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Monsoon [Video Review]

Weathering Heights: Khaou Searches for Solace in Stodgy Travelogue

Hong Khaou Monsoon ReviewThe adage born from Thomas Wolfe’s sentiment notwithstanding, the act of revisiting one’s origins through a cultural identity from which one’s been estranged is another matter entirely. How does one ‘go home’ to a place one barely remembers? Stripped from nostalgia, the ruins of a life which could have been had it not been for a violent conflict are at the heart of Hong Khaou’s sophomore effort, Monsoon, a metaphorical title referring to a deluge as much as it signals nature’s cycle of rebirth.

The kernels of an interesting character portrait are present in Khaou’s latest, which follows a similarly mournful cultural juxtaposition of two humans united by chance under circumstances (albeit distantly) informed by traumatic experiences. Doubling as both a travelogue and a romantic melodrama, Khaou’s quietly kept distance from his protagonist eventually sinks into a prosaic exercise of motions which feel meaningless and underwhelming.

Kit (Henry Golding), a British-Vietnamese man, returns to Saigon for the first time in over thirty years, having fled with his family as a child due to the Vietnam-American war. Both his parents are now deceased, and his aim is to explore and acclimate himself with the culture of his youth, even though he has few memories of his time as a child in Saigon and Hanoi. His brother is set to accompany him shortly, bringing along Kit’s nephews and sister-in-law, so they may spread the ashes of their parents, who have both been dead for some time. Kit begins a tentative romance with Lewis (Parker Sawyers), a young Black man whose father, an American Vietnam Vet, had relocated to Saigon. Their connection, though requited, finds itself pushed to the side as Kit soaks in his native homeland.

On the surface, there’s much to be interested in concerning Monsoon, throwing Henry Golding and Parker Sawyers together as strangers in a strange land, engaged in romantic canoodling in approximations rarely seen in cinema between an Asian and Black male characters which is neither toxic nor coercive. However, the interest wanes almost immediately as we wade between bits of stilted dialogue and exposition which often feels a bit vague concerning both their backgrounds.

A lack of general passion and chemistry between the two leads makes the narrative’s dependence on their relationship even more glaring, and while conversations about Monsoon tend to focus on Khaou’s casting of two heterosexual men in these roles, such concerns seem to miss the forest for the trees. But reception theory being what it is (the baggage audiences bring into a viewing experiences based on what they ‘know’ about anyone in front of or behind the camera), the lackluster romance of Monsoon invites such logical ponderings.

Compared to the immediacy of the two leads in his 2014 debut Lilting (read review), a young British white man managing his grief for his deceased partner while struggling to communicate with the dead man’s Cambodian mother, the cultural divides and universally familiar dramatic catalyst managed for a much more cohesive dramatic rendering. Khaou’s formidable subtlety doesn’t work quite as well in Monsoon which treads in an emotionally inert zone it never transcends, instead showcasing Benjamin Kracun’s (Beast; Promising Young Woman), beautiful cinematography but little else.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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