Monsoon (Review): A Smart Allegory for Vietnam’s Relationship with the West
Monsoon is a textured look at the development of Vietnam in the years since the Vietnam War that uses Henry Golding’s star charisma effectively.
Monsoon tells the small, personal story of a British Vietnamese man, Kit, returning to Vietnam for the first time since his family fled the country in his youth ostensibly to spread his deceased mother’s ashes. Writer-director Hong Khaou (Lilting) uses that man’s interaction with three other individuals – a distant cousin, a friend, and a paramour – to investigate how expats must reckon with various elements present in Vietnam today. The cousin is a man left behind; the struggles of post-war Vietnam were the normal of his life. The friend comes from a wealthy family of tea dealers merchants and represents the new evolution of Vietnam, even hailing from the North in Hanoi. The paramour is an American visitor to the country brought by his business interests in the region’s cheap labor. It’s a smart set-up to reckon with big themes.
Kit is played by Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians, who exudes movie star charisma. I’m not sure Golding is actually a good actor, but he has the sort of raw magnetism that draws the eye on the screen. There’s a long tradition of casting “movie star” actors in more contemplative, internalized roles. These performances always tend to land in a different register than a more internal, unknown actor might – think of George Clooney or Brad Pitt. No matter how good a performance by one may be, it is nearly impossible for them to ever deliver a turn where they truly disappear.
In a film as steeped in allegorical characters as this one, utilizing someone like Golding as an avatar for Vietnamese expats who departed the country as children is a highly effective choice. Here Golding is effectively emotive – you can feel him grasping for meaning in his life and searching for a sort of profound connection to his homeland that does not arrive readily. That Golding is a tall, fit, handsome fellow with an appealing accent only serves to further the feeling of otherness his performance is meant to convey. He simpy cannot fit in naturally in “the real Vietnam” – the cultural displacement matches Golding’s own physical one.
Golding is surrounded by three excellent performances that bring humanity to roles that are quite literally meant to operate in registers beyond simple human interactions. Lee, the cousin, is played by relative newcomer David Tran. Tran wonderfully manifests tinges of jealousy over Kit’s departure, but also the sort of “local know how” that makes for an essential presence. The affection, but awkwardness, in the interactions between the two wonderfully fits the allegory. Molly Harris (Doctor Who) makes for a vibrant presence well reflecting the Western tinge of the new Vietnam. That there’s a fast natural friendship with a Western visitor reflects well the efforts of the “new Vietnam” to integrate with Western business interests.
Parker Sawyers (Southside with You) plays Golding’s romantic interest in the film. As the avatar for Americans in the region, it makes sense that Kit finds the easiest and most direct connection with Sawyers’ character. Sawyers sells the hell out of some awkward dialogue that feels shoe-horned in to fit the character into the bigger allegory. Golding and Sawyers have a strong chemistry on screen and while their romance is peripheral to the broader thematic issues at play, their flirtation is memorably strong.
While the film does drag a bit despite a modest runtime just over 80 minutes, the cinematography remains lovely throughout. Monsoon makes for an effective travelogue for how Vietnam looks today – it captures a sort of off the beaten path vibrancy that alone makes the film worth your time.
Monsoon was screened digitally at NewFest in October 2020, and is now available to watch on digital and on demand.
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