'Crazy Rich Asians' star Henry Golding turns in a quietly potent performance in this homecoming drama, playing a Vietnamese-born man returning to Saigon for the first time in decades.
Home may mean different things to different people but, in Monsoon, Vietnam doesn't mean home to Kit (Henry Golding). He was born there, in the aftermath of the war. He spent his earliest years in the Asian nation, with his parents caught up in the aftermath of the conflict. But when he was still a child, his family left for a refugee camp in Hong Kong and then moved permanently to London. Now, as an adult who has lived the bulk of his existence far away, he returns for the first time to bring back his mother's and father's ashes. He's instantly thrown off balance upon his arrival, whether he's driving through moped-filled streets or walking around crowded markets. Little of what he remembers is the same — his old house and his neighbourhood stomping grounds, particularly — and he doesn't recall as much as his childhood best friend Lee (David Tran), who stayed behind, would clearly like. Of what he does recollect, some crucial details clash with Lee's versions, too.
As Kit roves around Saigon and then Hanoi — his place of birth and his parents' original home, respectively — he's searching for a connection. He'll make one, but not in the way he expects. Monsoon tells a noticeably slight tale, but Cambodian-born Chinese British writer/director Hong Khaou (Lilting) is keenly and overwhelmingly aware that a sense of belonging doesn't simply come with one's birth certificate. Kit wants to feel like he's where he's supposed to be. He wants to appreciate his homeland, and its significance to his mum and dad, as effortlessly as he appreciates his online dates. But it takes time, immersion and a true willingness to feel an affinity to the place he's supposed to call home. It takes falling in love with one of those online dates, American ex-pat Lewis (Parker Sawyers), too, and hearing about the object of his affection's complicated relationship with Vietnam as the son of a soldier who fought for the US during the war.
Khaou is a minimalistic filmmaker, in a sense. He delves into straightforward scenarios, and knows that he needn't layer them with too many external complicating factors. In other words, he's cognisant that merely examining how a person copes — even in a very commonplace situation — can deliver several lifetimes worth of complexity without a wealth of other narrative roadblocks or setbacks. Here, that means tagging along as Kit flits around Saigon, sorts through his awkward baggage with Lee, and makes a pilgrimage to Hanoi in search of the perfect resting place for his parents. It also means watching as he befriends local art curator Linh (Molly Harris) and follows her home to join her relatives as they make lotus tea, and soaking in the neon-lit bar hues and misty seaside cafe views on Kit's dates with Lewis. Monsoon revels in these moments, and in what they reveal about its protagonist, all while showing how Kit himself recognises that he's changing and connecting with each experience and realisation.
As a result, both Khaou and Monsoon ask a significant amount of Golding — more than his previous charisma-driven roles in Crazy Rich Asians, A Simple Favour and Last Christmas have combined. Viewers of those three films already know that he can radiate charm like few other actors currently appearing on-screen. Indeed, because he served up such a magnetic presence in that trio of flicks, it's easy to forget that he only has seven movies to his name to-date (six of which hail from the past three years, in fact). But Monsoon requires Golding's soulful best; at every moment, he's tasked with conveying the potent thoughts and jumbled emotions swelling inside Kit, and with doing so largely without dialogue. It's a quietly powerful performance, and it's one that the movie steadfastly needs. Actually, it's one that Monsoon depends upon. All of the film's key players are superb — including second-time actor Tran (Farewell, Berlin Wall), the also charismatic Sawyers (who played a young Barack Obama in Southside with You) and Harris (Artemis Fowl) as the pragmatic Linh — but Golding is its emotionally saturating core.
While it might be light on talk, making its chatter count whenever it flows either freely or nervously, Monsoon is big on atmosphere. Alongside Khaou's delicately pared-back approach and Golding's tenderly gripping performance, that's one of the film's strongest assets. Even if you've never roamed far beyond the spot where you entered this world, everyone can relate to feeling like an outsider somewhere where they think they shouldn't — and Monsoon nails and expresses that sensation again and again. That's how Khaou and cinematographer Benjamin Kracun (Beats) approach the movie in their naturalistic visuals, too. Whether staring down at the daily hustle and bustle, or dwarfing Golding via his surroundings, it views Vietnam as someone might view a childhood memory that's slipping from their mind. Accordingly, Monsoon feels comfortable and intimate and eye-opening and new all at once, like it's seeing a familiar sight properly for the first time. Of course, that's Kit's journey, as it is for anyone embarking upon a homecoming that feels foreign — and it proves immensely affecting viewing.
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