From the clean-cut heartthrob in Crazy Rich Asians to the cryptic academic in A Simple Favor, Henry Golding launched his film career with a roar. In a time when diversity is increasingly welcomed, it is little surprise that Golding is such a popular casting choice; his boyish smile and dazzling eyes bring to mind classic Hollywood. Taking roles in studio films — including starring opposite Emilia Clarke in the upcoming Last Christmas — allows Golding to consolidate his status as a leading man.
In the company of such titles, Hong Khaou’s Vietnam-set Monsoon comes as a radical and refreshing change in Golding’s young filmography. As Kit, Golding’s usual film attire of a clean shave and presentability tailored suits are substituted for scruffy stubble and a classic tourist ensemble: salmon-pink shorts and a loose fit shirt. Is he any less handsome? Of course not. But is he really a tourist? Well, that’s the complex internal debate Kit faces because his father was employed by a South Vietnam official during the Vietnam War, remaining in the region became increasingly risky by the war’s end. At the age of six, Kit and his family left for London — a destination insisted upon by his mother. After an absence exceeding thirty years, Kit has returned to his country of birth to find a resting place for his parents’ ashes.
If the grief wasn’t enough, Kit has to contend with feeling like an alien in the country he once called home. Kit’s experiences are likely to resonate only with first- and second-generation immigrants. His luxurious apartment is a world of wealth away from the poor area of Saigon he once inhabited. He does not know the language and he possesses only vague memories of growing up with childhood friend Lee (David Tran), who remained in Vietnam his whole life. Kit clumsily gifts Lee and his mother tourist tat, namely Queen Elizabeth II-themed biscuits and a filter water bottle. This is the best he could do, showing he does not know these people anymore.
What Kit experiences might be described as cultural guilt. Although Kit’s family left Vietnam under difficult circumstances, his upbringing and education in England have afforded him a bounty of opportunities compared to Lee. By quitting his job, Kit has taken an “extended holiday” to travel. In contrast, Lee speaks of how his family failed to leave Vietnam for the economically developed world. But Kit’s ignorance of his homeland is not unjustified. Many members of the Vietnamese community in London lost family in the War, making this a tough topic. And Kit’s father burnt many photos of the family in order to protect them.
This leaves Kit out of touch and out of place. With the bustling traffic and omnipresent honks from mopeds, Kit’s wistful wanderings through Saigon stick out. Khaou’s filmmaking style is just as pensive and observant as its subject. The camera pans across locations just as slowly as Kit’s emotional journey drifts along, allowing us to appreciate all the small details that are certainly attracting the main character’s curiosity.
The self-assured style — not unlike the sleepy pace of Kogonada’s Columbus — is unwavering. This comes as little surprise considering the praise received by Khaou’s first feature, Lilting. Akin to the Ben Whishaw-starring drama, Monsoon is a film about loss and gay love. Lewis (Parker Sawyers, mostly known for portraying Barrack Obama in Southside with You) is presented not only as a romantic interest but as the companion Kit desperately needs. Lewis also has a strange connection to Vietnam after his father fought in the US army during the War. The conversations between Kit and Lewis allow us to delve deeper into the former’s complex collection of thoughts.
Golding portrays this emotional turmoil with delicate subtlety. Some might even be surprised to learn that he has the acting skill for such a task. If Golding can find a balance between the glossy Hollywood romps and the personal stories like Monsoon, his career will arouse envy. He is in an excellent position to tell interesting stories through the perspective of his Malaysian heritage. We can only hope he will continue to play in both fields.