It’s been six years since Cambodian director, Hong Khaou, gave us his first feature film. That was Lilting, set in this country, told mainly in English but yet a story rooted in his home country. For his latest, Monsoon, there’s still a connection with the UK, but the action has moved to Cambodia’s neighbour, Vietnam, and it examines a subject recently raised by no less a director than Spike Lee. He’s in auspicious company.
Kit (Henry Golding) has returned to his birthplace in Vietnam, after leaving the country some 30 years before. His parents have died and, although it was their decision to leave the country, he feels it’s his duty to bring their ashes home. It’s an opportunity for him to re-establish the few connections he has there and understand more about his background. Along the way, he meets Lewis (Parker Sawyer), who lives and works in Saigon and broadens his understanding of the lasting effects of the Vietnam War, as well as helping him come to a decision about his personal future.
For Hong Khaou, that search to understand his heritage and have a sense of belonging is something that he’s constantly struggled with, as he explains to The People’s Movies’ Freda Cooper. He also talks about the practicalities of shooting a film in Vietnam, including having government officials assigned to the crew, and the omni-present chaos of the traffic in Saigon.
Freda Cooper Congratulations on such a beautiful film. I saw your previous one as well, Lilting, which I also loved, so this is only your second feature film. I wondered what themes you felt the two had in common. Perhaps a search for identity?
Hong Khaou I think you’re right, there is a common theme between the two. I think Lilting touches on a lot of themes, and the central one which connects it all is this deep sense of grief, and you can say Monsoon has an element of grief but it’s not so present. In my head, the parents had passed away a few years earlier. The central theme in Monsoon is more to do with identity and the search for it and that struggle, the tug and pull between cultural identity and national identity.
FC I suppose the element of grief in Monsoon is more subtle, because it’s represented by that little box, isn’t it?
HK Exactly. And I would say that the grief is more of a device to help me tell the story. It’s so hard to articulate, because there were a lot of things that I wanted to talk about but the main one was something I constantly struggle with myself, this tug and pull between and the dichotomy between not feeling quite settled here and yet I can’t really say that I belong over there. And I wanted to explore the idea of when somebody returns home when you don’t have memories and you can’t speak their language, what does that mean. I think there’s a really romantic notion that we must go back to our past – and I don’t want to be negative about this – in order to find a sense of the future and I felt for somebody like Kit, and also if I was in that situation personally, there comes a point where I would draw a line and say I don’t necessarily need to go back to that place.
FC It boils down to the question of what is home and where do you call home.
HK Yes and, for somebody like Kit, he arrives in the country and he feels dislocated and doesn’t feel he belongs, yet he can’t ever fully say he belongs back in the UK either. But I wanted the feeling that by the end of the film there is this sense that he does know where to leave the ashes because his parents went through so much. And one of the things I wanted to talk about was that, in order for the parents to build some kind of future for them and their children in the West, is contingent on them forgetting some of these past traumas and it’s their way of liberating Kit to be whoever and whatever he wants to be. And there comes a point where he has to make that decision and draw that line.
FC I understand that the script for Monsoon started to come together when Lilting was being shown at Sundance about six years ago. How did that happen?
HK Lilting went into Sundance and I was asked by the Sundance Lab if I had any other projects I wanted to develop and Monsoon was an idea I’d had for some time, way before Lilting but I didn’t know what shape or form it would take. So I wrote something very quickly and submitted it to them and I got into the Lab and they gave me a small grant which allowed me to go back to Vietnam for the first time and then subsequently Cambodia. Then, after multiple drafts, it became the film that you see now.
FC Is what we see on screen more or less as you intended? When I was watching it, and particularly the scenes between Kit and Lewis, I wondered if this was originally intended to be a two-hander?
HK It was always meant to be a two-hander and originally Lewis was a white American called Hank. I grew up on a staple diet of Vietnam war films and the white American perspective was always the dominant one in the West. As I was writing about Hank’s experiences and his father’s experiences, it felt so familiar that I felt I didn’t need to be contributing to that narrative. We’ve heard it so often. It felt more interesting to shift that slightly and make Lewis African American.
FC When I was listening to what he was saying in the film, it made me think of Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods because I felt there were some common themes in there. We know that you’re from Cambodia and you were brought up in this country. How much of your own background did you use when you were creating Kit’s character?
HK I would say a lot, and also not a lot, in the sense that a lot of the internal struggles that Kit goes through are similar to what I continue to go through. You take certain ideas and you try to embellish them and exaggerate them to make them a bit more interesting, but I did extensive research and listened to a lot of American audio archives of Vietnamese refugees’ experiences of arriving in America and their time in Vietnam. And there’s a smaller audio archive here in the UK, so I was listening to a lot of those experiences and amalgamating them and mixing them to give Kit this history – and Lewis as well. So I wouldn’t say it’s autobiographical, but there are many personal elements – that feeling of when he returns to the country for the first time and doesn’t feel he quite belongs and can’t access the memories and language to help him.
FC It’s fascinating that the film has no actual musical soundtrack. It’s actually the noise of the traffic in the background, the engines and all the horns on the scooters. Did you set out to replace music with those sounds, or did it just fall into place?
HK I think John Cummings, the composer, must have written about twenty different tracks. One thing I knew was that if you go to Vietnam, the noise is just so present. It’s like a sensory attack on you when you arrive in the country, it’s just so insane and immense. So we knew we had to embrace that and use it as a backdrop for our film but I didn’t imagine having so little music to be honest. We edited many different versions and there was one with more music, but as you’re editing and re-editing and refining, you arrive at a place where it felt right and maybe more honest without the music. Sometimes I felt the music was trying to manipulate us too much. But I think one thing that was always clear was the end music: it was always in the script that it was going to have a piece of music that lasted for the duration of that scene, so I guess that felt right because it was the most conclusive and emotional part of the film.
FC The traffic does have that constant presence and the film starts off with that aerial shot of the traffic junction and none of the vehicles crash into each other, which is quite extraordinary.
HK Vietnam is exactly like that. If you speak to anybody who’s been there, the first thing they tell you about is the traffic and the mopeds and how crossing a road is just hazardous, but when you make up your mind to cross and you step on the road, they do stop or swerve around you. I don’t know the details, but I’m sure there must be accidents. It’s like a swarm of insects just weaving in and out.
FC You shot on location in Vietnam. What were the practical challenges that went with that?
HK I think it made our film look a lot more expensive than it actually was. There was no way we could shut down any of the streets so we just plunged our actors into those moments and I think it gave them an authenticity and a richness. It’s quite dangerous and Saigon feels like the Wild West at times, despite it being such a cosmopolitan city that’s really aspirational and ambitious. There’s a lot of bureaucracy as well, because it’s a Communist government: on the one hand, they really welcome you to come and shoot in the country, but on the other hand they slow the process down because we literally had to determine not only where we wanted to shoot, but where we were pointing the camera as well. It was quite insane, actually: two weeks before we filmed, we had to tell the department where we were going to point the camera. And this was mainly for exterior scenes.
FC That’s quite intrusive.
HK Yes, I guess it’s just something that goes with that regime and their wanting to try and control things. Once you get a permit to film, they put two members of the Bureau onto your crew to make sure that what you’re filming is correct and that you’re not deviating.
FC Your leading man is Henry Golding – an interesting choice, because we tend to think of him in lighter weight roles, such as Crazy Rich Asians and Last Christmas. This is something quite different for him. What did you see in him that made him so right to play Kit?
HK When we cast Henry, we hadn’t seen any of those films and he has become something of a star actor. We were told by his team that he’d been in two films – Crazy Rich Asians and A Simple Favour – but we weren’t allowed to watch them because they were going to have a big release and he was going to be a star. I think at the beginning that didn’t matter to me. The film is very small and intimate film and it needed an actor to give us access to his internal journey and the nuances of that. It always needed an actor who could give us access to that.
We searched really extensively – we went to New Zealand and Australia, even Germany and France – and we just needed somebody who was right. We searched extensively in the UK as well. And then Henry’s tape came in and everybody was quite excited. He captured our attention so I kept testing him and we did further auditions on Skype and online and eventually I flew over to LA and we spent the day just working on a few scenes just to get a feel of what it would be like working in a room together. The thing that really sold it to me was that Henry doesn’t come from any acting experience and I felt his emotion was really honest. It didn’t feel mannered or arched and that was the quality I wanted. And we were able to shape those scenes together really well for rehearsals.
FC In the scenes when he’s wandering round the cities and finding his way round, his actual stature helps with the fact that he’s so uncomfortable. He’s so much taller than everybody else and he’s a stranger, but he’s not a tourist.
HK I hadn’t thought about his stature, but that’s a really good point. And also Henry has very similar feelings because he’s British and Malaysian so he understands the conflict that Kit has and we spent a lot of time in rehearsal talking about this.
FC What have you got coming up next? Or are you looking at various things at the moment? I hope we’re not going to have to wait another six years for a film from you ….?
HK (Laughs) Probably. It takes ages to make a film. I have a project being developed by BBC Films and that’s an adaptation of a German play, The Ugly One, and it’s very different to Lilting and Monsoon – it’s a black comedy. But at the moment I’m preparing to direct this BBC drama in this odd COVID time with many, many messy protocols. We’re going to start shooting on 12 October.