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Review: Displacement and identity come into play in the Vietnam-set drama ‘Monsoon’

Parker Sawyer and Henry Golding set off for a ride in "Monsoon."
Parker Sawyers, left, and Henry Golding set off for a ride in “Monsoon.”
(Strand Releasing)

Faint memories of a distant homeland flood a Vietnam-born, British gay man in Hong Khaou’s “Monsoon,” an authentic and gorgeous character study about the trauma of displacement, conflicted cultural identity and the parts of ourselves that feel almost forgotten. Laden with bittersweet sentiment, the film packs a muted but lasting emotional wallop.

Charmingly understated, rising international star Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”) plays Kit, who is visiting Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) for the first time since he and his family fled after the war. Delivering his mother’s ashes brings him back to a country that’s not entirely foreign yet no longer familiar. Charged with profound longing, Golding’s meditative, though never bitter, expression communicates Kit’s regret and curiosity. This is easily the most nuanced performance in the classically handsome actor’s short film career thus far.

As he traces his past in the shoes of a tourist, Kit repeatedly encounters Lewis (Parker Sawyers), a Black American whose father fought in Vietnam. The two meet for sex, yes, but also for heart-to-hearts about how the armed conflict directly and indirectly damaged them. Refreshingly, Kit’s sexual orientation bears no part of his troubles. In fact, that’s the one aspect about himself that’s not questioned. Khaou expertly directs Golding as a character out of his comfort zone, coming to terms with all of what was lost and gained in leaving his birthplace without ever giving in to tear-jerking sentimentality.

In perpetual flux, like many urban centers, the bustling city itself has erased and rewritten its history moving toward the promise of progress, building anew on top of old scars. Kit experiences a mended, sometimes unrecognizable land, and yet some sights and sounds he once knew have prevailed through the changes. Seasoned cinematographer Benjamin Kracun blends Ho Chi Minh City’s striking architecture, choreographed chaos (exemplified in a marvelous opening take) and romantic vistas for a visual treat.

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While in direct conversation with Spike Lee’s “Da Five Bloods,” Khaou’s “Monsoon” continues the Cambodian-British filmmaker’s personal interest in thoughtfully observing the stories of those living hyphenated lives that began with his moving debut, “Lilting.” For viewers who are part of any diaspora, this honest assessment of fractured identity will hit, pun intended, home.

‘Monsoon’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Playing: Available Nov. 13 via virtual cinemas, including Laemmle Theatres


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