Wednesday 23 September 2020

Still waters: "Monsoon"

The writer-director Hong Khaou made one of the standout British debuts of recent times with 2014's Lilting, his study of two people with nothing much in common united by a shared grief. What was striking was how quiet that film was, especially for a debut: it's conceivable that, in person, Khaou is an immodest blabbermouth to rival Donald Trump, but his direction there was exactly as gentle and elevating as the title suggested. Khaou's follow-up Monsoon operates in a similar vein, but on a more expansive stage. Anyone stumbling in late could be forgiven for thinking they were watching a documentary unobtrusively observing Henry Golding, that handsome fellow from Crazy Rich Asians, as he arrives in Saigon, has a nap, and then starts to feel his way out into this most bustling of metropoli. Yet some dramatic structure does eventually reveal itself: Golding's playing Kit, a British-Vietnamese man returning to his birthplace for the first time since childhood with some family business to resolve. As floated by the opening drone shot of a Saigon box junction (no box, resulting in a staggering free-for-all, and an even more staggering absence of casualties), it's the intersection of people that interests Khaou, and to best study that, you have to shut up and listen. So he does just that, the camera maintaining a respectful distance as Kit meets relatives and old friends, a potential romantic (or at least sexual) prospect in American army brat Lewis (Parker Sawyers), and the hip young curators of an art show about the country's colonial legacy. That's what everybody's wrestling with here, be they British, American or Vietnamese, and why the film's quietude is so important: it's in silence that we hear the past speak loudest to and through us.

Monsoon's keynote, accordingly, is one of unhurried patience. Khaou rightly senses he has a fascinating backdrop in Saigon - that our eyes will be as keen to explore it as Kit is - and calmly goes about sketching in his characters' identities and motives. He has brevity on his side: you sense those characters would rather not speak at all than say too much, which allows the film to surprise us in places, gradually revealing different facets of its protagonist's personality, some more sympathetic than others. You have to wait and see, in other words, but while you're doing that, you can't fail to notice Golding coming through with vastly more shaded and complex work than his big American breakthrough permitted, holding this camera's gaze while carefully parcelling out just what's on Kit's mind. The precision extends to Mark Towns' clipped, classical cutting, flipping crisply between two shots, building spatial and emotional relationships with film form; cinematographer Benjamin Kračun's elegant Steadicam handling picks up any remaining slack. There's still a certain reticence in play, which may frustrate some: even at the end of 85 minutes, there remain story elements to be teased out. I wondered whether Khaou was working through something in his own dual (British-Cambodian) heritage, which may explain why his cards appear so much closer to his chest here than they were in Lilting. It is a film you'll have to let sit, like the handmade lotus tea one of Kit's tour guides clings to as a symbol of the old ways. (She goes on to dismiss an inferior commercial variant as "quick, cheap and sells a lot", none of which could be applied to Khaou's cinema.) Still, how refreshing, at a time when the world sometimes seems noisier than ever, to encounter a creative so comfortable with charged, contemplative, ever-expressive silences.

Monsoon opens in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream from Friday.

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