A delicate, observant, and rather too quiescent drama of coming home to a strange land, “Monsoon” is an interesting change of pace for star Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”) and another musing on diaspora by the Cambodia-born British filmmaker Hong Khaou. It’s available as a virtual screening at the Coolidge Corner and other theaters.
Golding’s character, Kit, arrives in Saigon at the start of the film looking to reconnect with a country he can barely remember. Raised in England, he fled Vietnam with his family when he was 6. “I went to sleep one night,” he tells an acquaintance, “and when I woke up I was in a boat.” Returning to his homeland decades later with a box of his mother’s ashes, he looks up a childhood friend, Lee (David Tran), and is embarrassed to realize he can barely converse with Lee’s mother, who speaks no English.
Kit is gay, which contributes to his sense of being an outsider in an alien culture. Through a dating app, he has a hook-up with a Black American expatriate, Lewis (Parker Sawyers), that slowly deepens into something more over the course of the film. Both men are ostensibly free to move where they will; both men carry the weight of guilt, Lewis because his father fought in and was traumatized by the war and Kit because he owes something to his birth country he can’t yet define.
“Monsoon” is shot with a steady eye to the beauty and decay of modern Saigon, a city that is emerging into the 21st century with an energy that lacks any romantic notions toward the past. Kit recalls swimming in a pond near his old house, but Lee shows him that it’s been filled in and is now the site of a factory. When the film sends the hero on a long train journey to Hanoi, he and we discover a city holding onto its colonial architectural past in ways that are both pleasing and unsettling.
Khaou’s filmmaking style involves long takes and a lot of breathing room, an approach that can have its strengths but here lacks a certain energy to keep a viewer from drifting away. Golding is sympathetic if opaque in a largely reactive lead role. The Vietnam War is a barely living memory for Kit’s generation, including an art curator (Molly Harris) he befriends and who talks of the conflict as “our parent’s war.” Yet the damage of that conflict is interwoven with their lives in ways that make them who they are. That’s the puzzle “Monsoon” turns over in its hands with careful poetic detachment.
Written and directed by Hong Khaou. Starring Henry Golding, Parker Sawyers, David Tran, Molly Harris. Available as a virtual screening at the Coolidge. In English and Vietnamese. 85 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: sexual material).