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Back to where you came from : how Vietnam drama Monsoon ignites the battle for belonging

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Hong Khaou’s thoughtful film speaks to those of us who were forced to move from our homeland but are now finding a haven in other spaces, from food to family

‘Go home!” or “Go back to where you came from!” are words that people of colour hear and swallow all the time. Having grown up in the UK, such jeers ignite both confusion and anger – as my sense of a community is diminished by the insults of people who are no more British than I am.

What if we can’t go home? What if leaving our homeland, mother tongue and culture was never our choice to make? And what if we aren’t even sure that that home will feel more like home than our adopted country? Hong Khaou’s thoughtful drama Monsoon speaks to those of us who have lost our political origins and geographic home, but are now finding homes of our own creation.

For many Asian immigrants and refugees, racism has painted us as the yellow peril or brown terror, the perpetual foreigner with unbreakable ties to a land of origin. But we have our own internal conflict about our displacement. In Monsoon, Khaou externalises this cultural dislocation, exploring what happens when we do “go home”. The film’s protagonist Kit (played by Henry Golding) belongs to the second generation of Vietnamese “boat people” who resettled in Britain following the Vietnam war. But when Kit returns, decades later, to Ho Chi Minh City, tasked with scattering his parents’ ashes, he feels like a tourist – least of all because he can’t speak the language.

Coming from a Vietnamese family, who like Kit had faced a perilous sea voyage to safety, seeing my anxieties and ambitions on screen felt quietly radical. As in Khaou’s 2014 debut feature Lilting, Monsoon brings together themes familiar to the East Asian diaspora: social dislocation, language barriers, the cultural and generational divide. Far from the likes of Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, where Vietnamese characters remain overshadowed by the film’s broader gripe at American injustices, Khaou centres the complex interior life of a Vietnamese refugee. Monsoon amplifies stories that haven’t figured prominently in history textbooks. By taking audiences deep into Kit’s mind, Khaou shows how a psychological battle for belonging persists within the Vietnamese diaspora long after the physical wounds of conflict have healed.

The film’s only injection of music – a traditional Vietnamese ballad – pinpoints a turning point in Kit’s journey of self-discovery, juxtaposing the modernity of the capital’s high-rise structures with a bygone song of wartime Vietnam. Capturing Vietnam at this transition point, Monsoon counters suggestions that the nation will be forever weighed down by its past. While pointing out landmarks that recall the country’s division, Monsoon also looks forward to the future. Another character, Linh (Molly Harris) breaks away from family tradition by becoming an artist, thereby spotlighting young East Asian immigrants’ opportunity to write a new chapter freed from political legacy. Watching the film with my family, I was comforted by seeing the second generation carry out their ambitions so guiltlessly.

We also get glimpses into the country’s nature-dependent heart, the last outpost of its handcrafting traditions. Late in the film, Kit is invited to view Linh’s family business in Hanoi, the time-honoured art of making lotus-scented tea. Three generations are gathered round in a tranquil circle, hunched over baskets and meticulously plucking stamens. A kilo of tea needs about 1,000 lotus flowers. Holding up a flower, Kit asks: “Which part of this is useful?” Linh replies: “We throw nothing away – every part is edible.” As we take in the sunset colours of the papery shells, their soft rustle on the floor, and the delicate smile of Linh’s grandma, I’m reminded of the core values which buttress our family relationships – especially gratitude for our elders’ unimaginable hardships. It is a special form of love, a quiet kind that expresses itself not through lavish gestures but through unspoken acts of sacrifice – like the 14-hour factory days my parents would work to put food on the table.

In Monsoon, Hong Khaou writes back in the very language used against us, by finding light in dark places and revealing how home is found in all kinds of spaces; in food, love, place, memory, song and family. Returning to the site of your childhood can release a complex barrage of emotions, often in a way that feels magical. Khaou works this same magic through his film; he builds a world that draws from his own life and, in turn, makes the viewer’s experience more real, more beautiful, and more our own.

By Georgina Quach – The Guardian – September 29, 2020

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