Director Hong Khaou follows his debut feature, the Sundance critical hit “Lilting,” with “Monsoon,” which premieres Saturday in competition at Karlovy Vary Film Festival. The film stars “Crazy Rich Asians” lead Henry Golding and Parker Sawyers. Variety spoke to Khaou about the film.
“Monsoon” follows a Vietnamese-born British guy Kit, played by Golding, as he travels with the ashes of his parents to Vietnam, which they left when he was a child in the turbulent aftermath of the Vietnam War. In Ho Chi Minh City, a bustling commercial metropolis, he meets American entrepreneur Lewis, played by Sawyers, and the two of them tentatively develop a relationship, at first sexual and then romantic.
Kit spends time exploring the city, with the assistance of his cousin, Lee, whose parents decided to stay in Vietnam, and then travels to Hanoi, where he hangs out with Linh (Molly Harris), a Vietnamese student who embodies the ambitious spirit of the young generation, despite feeling constrained by her family’s traditional values.
The film began to take shape when “Lilting” played in Sundance, and the prestigious Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab suggested Khaou pitch them an idea for his next project. In the four years that followed, with the support of the BFI and BBC Films, the pic underwent “various incarnations,” Khaou says.
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For example, the project started out as a two hander between Kit and the character who ended up as Lewis, an African American, in the finished film, but started out as Hank, a Caucasian American. “Along the way, through the various notes that came from the execs and financiers, it was felt that the Hank character’s voice – the dominant white American, in terms of the subtext of the war – had been heard before,” Khaou says.
There are slight similarities between Khaou’s experience and Kit’s – like Kit’s family, Khaou’s parents fled South-East Asia when he was young – in their case from Cambodia – and he too grew up in Britain, but he wanted to distance himself a little from the film. “I didn’t want to make it so much about me, although I guess it is inevitable it always comes out,” he says. “I wanted to hide behind this Vietnamese character, so to speak, and talk about these feeling and issues I’ve always had about having to flee a war-torn country… and the struggle for a sense of cultural identity,” Khaou says.
While Kit’s initial focus is on his search for traces of his family’s past in Vietnam – thanks to the influence of Lewis and Linh – he becomes immersed in the emerging modern, cosmopolitan Vietnam, fighting to free itself from its past. This provides a backdrop to the film, one which has rarely been shown in Western cinema. “Vietnam is changing so quickly. It wants to be this exciting new capitalist country, and everything is possible there,” Khaou says. “I wanted for Kit to have this sense that when he arrives in Vietnam it is this foreign place, and he has to slowly forge a relationship with it.”
One of the most striking scenes in the film is when Kit joins Linh and her family as they prepare Lotus tea in the traditional way. “It is about the country’s past and it is a past that will probably no longer exist as the country moves forward and modernizes,” Khaou says. “Linh is so shackled by it. From this, Kit gets to thinking that his parents did what they did to liberate him from that. They didn’t want to talk about the past,” Khaou says.
At a pivotal point in the film, Lee observes that it is ironic that Kit is taking his parents’ ashes back to a country they tried so hard to escape. “So much of what our parents have built in the West is contingent on forgetting those past traumas,” Khaou says.