Perhaps Lauren Eden, a Melbourne poet with a gift for elegant, exquisitely well-expressed lines said it best when she observed in her collection Of Yesteryear that “We live in the small spaces between our words / hiding between the said / and all we cannot say.”
There is an ocean of expressed sentiment and thought lurking in those small space, feelings so vast and terrifyingly unnavigable that the temptation is to leave it well alone and hide there, not letting others in to see what is present behind the things said, and those not.
Kit (Henry Golding) is a man who has retreated into this expansive void, still caught in the grief of losing his Mum a year after her death and who has journeyed back to Vietnam, a country she fled decades earlier, to scatter her ashes and those of his father’s in their ancestral city of Hanoi.
He can no sooner not do it than breathe but as he arrives in Saigon from the UK, his family’s adopted home, there is a heaviness to him, as if he is carrying a burden so great he may fall under its weight sooner than not.
Reflecting the interior sense of self that has consumed him, Monsoon, the second film from gifted writer/director Hong Khaou (Lilting) begins in languorous fashion, silently and with only the exterior noise of cars on the road, doors opening & closing and the prosaic dialogue of hotel staff breaking the all-consuming silence of Kit’s world, taking us from the airport to hotel and out into Saigon’s streets.
Life is going on, manically and noisily around him but Kit is constrained; by his Mum’s death (and her ashes in a box in his apartment’s loungeroom), his profound sense of loss and by a crushing sense that he is returning to a country in which he is more of a tourist than a native son.
Dislocation is the prevailing theme of Monsoon which examines what happens to a person when they feel unmoored from life in a myriad of ways and they are struggling to find some sense of self and home again.
As we watch Kit wander through the streets of Saigon, meeting up with estranged family members like boyhood playmate Lee (David Tran) and his mother – the exact relationship is never made clear but they were once close and after thirty years dislocated from culture and his home country, Kit feels nothing but an awkward yawning gap – and trying to find his parents’ old apartment, we bear witness to one man’s search for a sense of belonging.
If you were to look at his near-blank face and constrained sense of movement, it would be tempting to think there is nothing desperate about Kit’s search for meaning in a place that feels barren of it in all respects, but in each anguished glance or quiet summation of a moment, Kit, portrayed with nuanced power by Golding, is clearly a man deep in anguish and lot b beyond his ability to be found.
Khaou beautifully brings this great but quiet struggle to life with sparse dialogue, near-silent scene upon scene where Kit is wandering a city that should be familiar to him but which is not – he left the country when he was six with no warning and his parents refused to speak Vietnamese or reference the country when he was growing up in Britain such was their trauma – and a visual aesthetic where movement is limited, save for the background cacophony of the city, and everything is deliberate, calculated and drained of vitality.
Monsoon won’t be to everyone’s taste of course because it takes its time establishing how lost, alone and in seemingly unassailable grief Kit is, but it is worth immersing yourself because the rewards are rich as the lost son of Vietnam slowly comes to life.
A meeting with a man, that you assumed was arranged by Grindr or another of the many gay meet-up apps in existence, is the unlikely catalyst for Kit’s second chance at life.
Lewis (Parker Sawyers) is everything Kit isn’t, especially in his grief-mired present, a man in Vietnam to oversee the production of clothing for his fashion line back in the States, who embodies the quiet vitality and emotional connection that Kit needs, not that he realises it at the time, to draw him back into the land of living.
Echoing themes explored in Lilting of grief, loss and cultural dislocation, Monsoon is a measured study of the immensity of grief and its power to so disrupt every aspect of our life that it is hard to tell up from down and in from out.
Kit is clearly embroiled so deeply in his grief that he cannot find a way out but as he grows closer to Lewis, spends more time with Lee and art tour operator Linh (Molly Harris), with whom he comes to know his parents’ home city of Hanoi a little better (though not, he notes, in any way that feels meaningful, at least in the immediate present), he is introduced not only to life beyond his parents’ death but to a country with whom he has little to no rapport and which he needs to reconnect with in some form if he is to find any peace.
Unfolding with deliberate care and studied, deeply emotional precision – do not for a moment confuse a laidback aesthetic for an absence of emotional impact; Monsoon is deceptively intense at every stage of its engrossingly restrained storytelling – the film takes its time telling Kit’s story and taking us through the real stages of grief which are nowhere near as neat and tidy and easily delineated as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross might have led us to believe.
In Monsoon we bear witness to both the loss and the regaining, the dislocation and the small steps back to us a sense of belonging and place and the re-connection of Kit not only to Vietnam but to humanity as a whole.
The man who greets his brother, sister-in-law and nephews at the airport when they arrive in Vietnam, is not the same man who landed in Saigon those scant few weeks later.
Khaou is too much a student of the human experience to pretend Kit is wholly and utterly transformed but he is changed and better for getting to know and fall in love with Lewis – the ending of the film is beautifully, quietly emotive, distilling the immensity of Kit’s journey in one simple, heartfelt scene – and reconnecting with Lee and spending time with Linh has taken beyond the morass is grief to a place where if he is not healed, he is on his way, a fulsome step back to life.
Monsoon is exquisitely beautiful, gracefully and meditatively exploring emotional, social and cultural dislocation, loss and grief and how hard it can be to find out where you belong but how wonderfully comforting and quietly and yet transformatively restorative it is when you do.