Displacement, grief, the generation gap and gay relationships characterized by cultural difference — Cambodian-British filmmaker Hong Khaou’s second film swims in similar thematic waters to his acclaimed first, “Lilting.” But while “Monsoon” broaches these subjects with Khaou’s already trademark, borderline tremulous sensitivity, it comes from the opposite direction, tracking the hesitant attempts of a Vietnamese-born Englishman to find some slender connection to his birth nation, following the death of his mother. Initially, none comes: “I feel like a tourist,” says Kit (Henry Golding), and his voice is tinctured with the disappointment of the prodigal child returning to find no fatted-calf feast.
Kit is in Vietnam for the first time since being spirited away as a six-year-old by his mother, fleeing the turbulent wake of the war with America. Arriving a couple of weeks ahead of his brother, Kit is doing some advance scouting around Saigon (which is how most Vietnamese people still refer to Ho Chi Minh City) to find a suitably “momentous” spot to scatter his mother’s ashes. But despite an awkward reunion with Lee (David Tran), a distant cousin who brings him round the sites of their childhood play — some still standing, some changed beyond recognition — the expected flood of memories never occurs. Only a potential romance sparked by a date with Lewis (Parker Sawyers), a black American transplanted to Vietnam, and a friendship struck up with Linh (Molly Harris) on a visit to Hanoi, allay the forlornness of Kit’s mission.
This precise moment of floating, rootless uncertainty is beautifully evoked. The film is especially strong on the detail of the atomized, ephemeral experience of long-term travel: The sterility of late-night Skype calls in serviced apartments; the long stretches of your day that can pass wordlessly (the film’s near-dialogue-free opening runs quite a few minutes when all we’ve really heard Kit say is “Wifi password?”); the way busy-ness can amplify loneliness, typified by a lovely retreating overhead of a teeming junction, with the erratic Brownian motion of cars and mopeds resolving into patterns and pulses like the waveforms of migratory birds.
Kit’s psychological separation from the hubbub that surrounds him is literalized throughout by Benjamin Kračun’s elegant camerawork, which often frames Golding’s handsome, thoughtful face through windows, with a spray of reflected lights giving us an impression of the outside world, but also Kit’s isolation from it. At other times, the image is itself a reflection, as revealed when the camera pulls wide to show us that the action has been playing out in a mirror, a subtly disorienting axis-flip.
But the delicate dissociation of this approach can be a liability to the story, which Khaou handles almost too carefully, as though fearful of breakage. Interactions are tentative, freighted with silences and glances; most exchanges end unresolved, right up to the abrupt, mid-air ending; even the sexual encounters, which occur with refreshing casualness, are portrayed rather chastely — not, one feels, out of prudishness, but because the act itself is too definitive for Khaou’s allusive, suggestive agenda. John Cummings’ plaintive score is used sparingly, and mostly late on, as though it would otherwise place too bold a stamp on the film’s elusive mood. Just as Kit is often seen through windows, the film can feel put away behind glass, like good china, to be admired rather than used, enjoyed, fully felt.
These potential frustrations do have compensations. The British-Malaysian Golding, working in a very different register from his breakout in “Crazy Rich Asians,” has an appealing, natural lightness that prevents the narrow focus from feeling solipsistic. The evocative, far-off bustle of Gunnar Óskarsson’s counterpointing sound design rushes in to fill the scoreless parts of the soundtrack. And the supporting cast is strong: David Tran brings a wounded, slightly resentful energy to Lee, the cousin left behind. Linh, the art enthusiast who comes from a family of lotus tea merchants, might be an on-the-nose embodiment of “New Vietnam” and its struggle between modernity and tradition, but Molly Harris imbues her with warmth. And while Lewis feels a little underwritten on the page — his blackness makes almost no impact on his characterization compared to his Americanness, which rings hollow given how attuned the film is elsewhere to the conundrum of different identities co-existing in one personality — Parker Sawyers undergirds his laid-back demeanor with a soulful, almost neurotic intensity.
The people who drift into Kit’s life provide him with an equivocal way to belong in this place, but it is never the homecoming he tacitly seeks. Nor can it be, Khaou’s film is wise to suggest, because such a thing is itself an illusion. This insight may lack the full-bore emotive punch of Khaou’s more accessible debut, but still “Monsoon” is a graceful and truthfully irresolute investigation into the strange, often poignantly unreciprocated relationship that many first- and second-generation emigrants have with the far-off foreign country of the past.