Monsoon – Interview with director Hong Khaou

This week, Hong Khaou’s follow up to LILTING is released in Irish cinemas. MONSOON stars Henry Golding as Kit, a Vietnamese man who grew up in the UK, returning to a country he barely remembers, to lay his parents to rest, as well as some of the ghosts of his past.

We caught up with writer/director Hong Khaou to find out more about MONSOON, what it was like to film a quiet and thoughtful film in the seeming chaos of Vietnam, and why this is an important story to tell in the current climate.

Monsoon is released online on IFI@Home from this Friday – 25th September.


MONSOON feels like a very personal story. Where did it come from?
Hong Khaou: Yeah, it is very personal. A lot of the themes and motifs in there are things that I care about and I have been wanting to put onto a film. The central thing is this struggle for a sense of who he is, I think is something that I continue to have, and I have had all my life, pretty much. I wanted to find a way to put that down into a film, and from that I am then able to comment on all of these other things that I wanted to talk about, like touch on the idea of the Vietnam war. I really liked the idea that Lewis and Kit are now adults but they were born after the war – so I see them as very much a product of that – so as they meet and are able to find pleasure in one another, I think their parents’ political past collides forward and affects that. I like the way that the political is binded to the personal. All of those things I wanted to find ways to put into a film. One of the things I really wanted to talk about was this romantic notion that we have to go back to our roots in order to move forward, and for somebody like Kit, I think – and very much me, I would say – when you don’t have memories or language in that way, it’s very hard to do that. I think there comes a point where it is left to us to draw that line. Not that there is anything wrong with that romantic notion, I think it’s a beautiful thing, and it was something that I thought doesn’t really apply to me. I wanted to put all of those elements together.


Why did you decide to tell this story after LILTING, which was another story about love and loss, and trying to find relationships.
HK: I think it’s one of those things that still stirs in me, that I felt needed exploring. On the one hand, there are similarities to LILTING, and equally I think it is very different. Even though grief is present in MONSOON, I’m not really exploring grief. I wanted grief to be a device that he is carrying, and I wanted that to permeate the film, but not in any meaningful way, like LILTING was trying to deal with the idea of grief. The thing that I really wanted to explore deeper was this struggle between cultural and national identity that [Kit] was going through. I grew up on a staple diet of Vietnam war films made by Americans, that has been the dominant perspective in the West, an I felt that I wanted, in some ways, to do my take on it, but not as a period shootout type film. I wanted to address some of that and put a human face to it. So often in American films, they are the victim and they are the hero and the Vietnamese are always the villain and the country is always seen as a victim. I remember, in the early days, wanting to talk about it but as the script evolved it became this.


How challenging and chaotic was it to film in Vietnam?
HK: It is chaotic, if you first arrive there – anyone will tell you – it’s just insane. It’s an onslaught of noises and chaos. It feels exciting at first, and it’s a quite a novelty at first but it can be quite wearing. Equally, as you acclimatise, it sits in the background. It was tough, there is no other way of saying that [laughs]. On the one hand, it made our film really expensive, and I think it gave the film authenticity, because we literally plunged our actors into those street moments. Obviously, we couldn’t close any roads or anything like that; we just placed them into those elements, and I think that gave the film a richness and an authenticity. Equally I think it was tough, there were times when the cultural differences were tough; things were lost in translation. It was quite bureaucratic because it’s a communist country, so they were quite strict with us. I don’t mean that in a horrible way because we were able to go to all the locations we wanted to, these landmark locations that were very much part of the conflict, [but] in all the exterior scenes, we had to tell them where we were pointing the cameras, and there was almost no room to improvise. Yet, we were able to go to the Independence Palace, which was this incredible building [and] such a landmark for the independence of Vietnam, we were able to go to the Long Bien Bridge, built by Gustave Eiffel in Hanoi. So it was a mixture! [laughs]


That’s interesting because a lot of your camera angles seem very deliberately still, was this as a result of the rules of filming in Vietnam?
HK: No that was a stylistic thing. That was always intentional. I felt the look of the film was very important for a film like MONSOON, that’s quiet and intimate. It’s very much about [Kits] internal journey and the nuance of that. Me and Benjamin Kracun the DP spent a lot of time talking about it. I really wanted the language of film to continue some of those motifs that I was talking about; the past and the present, the young and the old, and also to give Kit this distance between him and the country of his birth that he has no memories of, and is unable to access. The idea was that we were shooting him a lot off reflection in the beginning and we slowly removed that motif as he settled and acclimatised in the country. I really wanted to have this observational quality to it as well, but not always from afar. I would describe it that I feel like we are just a couple of steps behind [Kit], watching these personal moments. When these heartfelt moments do arise, I want us to be able to feel it beside him as well. That’s the best way I can describe it.


The concept of home is very powerful in storytelling, and MONSOON is obviously a story of immigration, can you talk about telling a story like this now?
HK: I think we have been fortunate; with the current climate this film seems to resonate a bit more. Home as a concept, and family as a concept and identity, that’s something that plagues me [laughs], it just follows me. It’s interesting, I remember when I was writing this we were going though the Brexit referendum, and America had Trump during their election, and it got really ugly, and it got very polemic, and there was really no room or no desire to have a discussion of any sort. Refugees and immigrants got scape goated really quickly and easily and conveniently. I remember8 feeling incredibly angry about that. I remember thinking if I could contribute in any way, it would be to put a face to that experience. It just makes me so angry when we get into those places, and if you try to have any discussion it just becomes polarising.


There is a real clash between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern in the film, how did that come about?
HK: When I returned to Vietnam I noticed that a lot of the young – if not all of then young generation – don’t really care about the war any more, They are very ambitious and dynamic and they just want to look to the future, and they get so bored when people like me talk about the war [laughs]. That is also continuing that motif that I wanted to talk about, the juxtaposing between the past and the present, and the country is caught in this transitional moment, which I felt we were able to capture. You could be in this amazing high tech high rise, and then you could walk 30 seconds and you would be in an extremely poor part of the country that is really quite unique.


Henry Golding’s star is on the rise at the moment, how did you go about casting the film?
HK: He’s become a bit of a star! When we cast Henry he told us that he had done two feature films – CRAZY RICH ASIANS and A SIMPLE FAVOUR – and we weren’t allowed to watch those films, but we were told they were going to be great films [laughs]. It’s really odd, the actor that Henry has become, and it has been brilliant. I knew from the beginning that we needed an actor that was good enough to give us access to his internal journey, because the film is quiet, it needed someone who has charisma and could hold our attention. We spent a lot of time searching; we searched in the UK extensively, we went as far as New Zealand, Canada, Germany. We really spent a lot of time finding the right kind of actor that is beautiful to watch and is able to give those nuances. A taping came in from Henry and immediately all of us felt there was something rather special about this man. My concern was that he didn’t come from an acting background so we spent a lot of time testing. Eventually I flew over to LA and spent a day working on a handful of scenes together, for the both of us to get to know each other and to see how working together would be. The thing that sold it to me, was because he is not from a trained background, when he accessed these certain emotions they came across very honest to me. It didn’t feel arched or mannered, and I wanted it this film to be very quiet and gentle, and to see all of these details. We spent a lot of time talking about that. Another thing was I think Henry really understood this conflict that Kit has because he is half British and half Malaysian. It was really beautiful to watch, to be able to work together to get that right.


What do you hope audiences take from the film?
HK: I hope it chimes with them, I hope it stirs something. You make it, and you can only hope for the best. More than anything I hope I am able to add to the noise about immigration, in that people don’t just wake up one day and uproot entire family, and go through such extreme conditions and life risking conditions to go to another country. It’s not something that something you would wake up thinking you would do. It has consequences, but really big repercussions not just the immediate, but the unintended consequence. You have Kit as an adult now grappling for a sense of who he is.


I don’t know if this is overly optimistic since we are still in a global pandemic, but do you know what’s next for you?
HK: I’m working on a TV show; I am directing a TV series with Fiona Shaw in it. It’s the second series of BAPTISTE, written by Jack and Harry [Williams]. We were shooting in Hungary earlier this year and then the pandemic happened and we just got shut down. Now they are remounting the show and we are shooting in October. That’s my current thing but I also have a project in development with BBC Films.

Words – Brogen Hayes

Monsoon is released  online on IFI@Home this Friday – 25th September