I’ve long been drawn to movies shot in Vietnam, films like Three Seasons, The Quiet American, and Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. No doubt, part of this is due to my country’s complicated relationship to Vietnam. But it’s more personal than that, having spent five years as a therapist to Vietnam veterans and now serving as a psychiatrist for refugees and immigrants from all over the world, including Southeast Asia.
Still more, I fell in love with the country 22 years ago, during two trips to collaborate with physicians in Da Nang and make side journeys to Hanoi and Saigon. Traveling to Vietnam is an overwhelming experience: besides its drenching humidity, there’s the relentless noise and industry occupying its city streets from sunrise to well after sundown, the unending stream of cyclo taxis, bicycles, and motorbikes. Fascinating, too, is the interplay of the old and the new: 13th Century Cham carvings, French colonial architecture, and modern skyscrapers.
A new film, Monsoon, captures these dynamics better than any of the aforementioned titles. It’s on a par with Three Seasons in depicting the tension between the old and the new, without yielding to the temptation to exoticize Southeast Asia like The Quiet American and Da 5 Bloods.
Writer/director Hong Khaou was probably helped by the pressure of a shoestring budget and brief filming schedule. Since he couldn’t shut down streets for his shoots, we get the full barrage of urban Vietnam’s sights and sounds as his protagonist Kit (Henry Golding) goes about his business. The dialectic of modern bustle and quieter tradition is best conveyed in a pair of overhead shots: first of a hectic traffic intersection in Saigon, later of a quietly seated circle of Hanoi workers cutting up lotus flowers for tea.
Unfortunately, Monsoon is the weakest film of the four, falling short in dialogue and characterization, despite a premise with promise. Kit and his family escaped Saigon as boat people when he was 6, and he’s returning with his parents’ ashes to find a suitable spot to disperse them. In his mission, he crosses paths with his cousin Lee (David Tran), falls in love with American fashion designer Lewis (Parker Sawyers), and learns some history from art curator Linh (Molly Harris).
Each of these interpersonal dynamics has great potential. Lee illustrates what happened to South Vietnamese who stayed behind after reunification. Lewis battles his own intergenerational demons, with a troubled Nam vet for a father. And Linh sees her country not merely as a momentum-building capitalist juggernaut, but as a place with a thriving contemporary artistic culture.
Alas, the dialogue written by Khaou is serviceable at best, clunky at worst. Kit labels his deceased mother as “formidable,” but doesn’t expand on what made her so. He wants to find a “momentous” location to spread his parents’ ashes; does anyone talk like that in reality? One can tell, too, that the script was written by a Brit, when the American character Lewis describes the lotus tea as “the proper stuff.”
Even worse, Kit suffers from the near-fatal cinematic malady of blandness. In Golding’s performance, we stay in the emotional shallows of grief and homecoming. I don’t know if this is the fault of Khaou’s direction (I haven’t seen his first feature, Lilting, for comparison) or Golding’s limitations as an actor (his breakthrough film, Crazy Rich Asians, was overrated for its representation, yet underwhelming in its totality).
I can make allowances for Monsoon’s narrative shapelessness, however. Whether intentional or not, an argument can be made that this amorphous quality accurately embodies Kit’s self-perception. He’s not quite a Brit, and with his gossamer memories of his homeland, he’s not Vietnamese, either.
But what makes this film rise above disposable entertainment is its strong sense of place. If you want to encounter Vietnam as more than a video catalogue of tourist hotspots – to view its markets, street vendors, quiet temples, and timeworn apartment complexes – Monsoon is a good spot to begin.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )