British-Malaysian actor Henry Golding has carved a space in Hollywood as a debonair heartthrob who can bring old world charm to contemporary mainstream movies. From his turn as a moneyed groom-to-be in the 2018 smash “Crazy Rich Asians” to his Hitchcockian matinee idol in “A Simple Favor” that same year, Golding brings a measure of class to every project he graces. And, with just a handful of screen credits, there haven’t been many. In Hong Khaou’s lovely, lilting “Monsoon,” Golding emerges from upstart Hollywood stardom as a calm, but still cool, and compelling dramatic lead. It’s hard to take your eyes off him, and that’s not just because he’s in nearly every shot of this slice of gay soul searching as an expat returning to his roots in Vietnam.
Khaou’s film, the Chinese-British filmmaker’s first since 2014’s “Lilting,” unfolds in dulcet, almost ASMR-inducing tones, but that doesn’t mean “Monsoon” lacks for big emotional impact. Kit (Golding) is a British-Vietnamese man returning to his birth country for the first time in three decades, and he’s lost in translation. Unable to speak the language, and now spiritually disconnected from his origins, Kit journeys first to Saigon, and then Hanoi, in search of a place to scatter his family’s ashes. Helping him on his voyage is second cousin Lee (David Tran), whose fidelity to his home country and insight into their past gives Kit the psychological tools to reassemble his family’s fractured narrative as boat refugees who fled after the Vietnam War.
That haunted past has carried over into Kit’s presence, as he too is constantly in flight: from romantic connection, from his past, from life. Khaou’s screenplay makes no fuss about the fact that Kit is also gay, with that element rolled out through casual sexual encounters that punctuate the movie with refreshingly little ceremony. A shot of a tattooed Golding putting his shirt back on after sleeping with a stranger is sexy in its modesty. Yet a deeper exchange awaits.
While adrift in Saigon, Kit meets up with Lewis (an engrossing Parker Sawyers, who played Barack Obama in “Southside with You”) at a bar over frosty pints of beer, presumably through a dating app, though the film skips over the technicalities of their hookup. “You look like your picture,” Lewis tells him, a passing remark that any gay millennial who’s experienced Grindr can relate to. As mutually far-flung souls, Kit and Lewis pretty quickly connect, and just as quickly hit the bedroom.
Over the course of the movie, Lewis gradually unlocks something in Kit, who we get the sense has intimacy issues, or at the very least doesn’t have much background in sustaining or even dipping into a long-term relationship. There’s a melancholy vibe to their courtship, especially knowing that, given their geography, it could have an expiration date. There’s also tension between the two men, as Lewis’ father was an American who fought in the Vietnam War, but that ideological split also allows Kit to ask questions and do deeper spiritual digging about where he came from, and why.
Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun stirs up a warm, enveloping visual environment, capturing the jittery energy of Ho Chi Minh City but juxtaposing it against the cold lonely interiors of the hotel rooms and hostels Kit passes through. Kit’s insides, wracked with quiet torment and displacement, can’t quite match his outsides, lush with color and possibility and complication. But as he begins to take the gradual steps to find himself, or whatever version is left after your parents are gone and your past life all a haze, you see that shell coming off.
As Kit, Golding is a swank tower of understatement, conveying confusion and alienation with few words. His most telling moments often involve staring out windowsor sitting on trains, ruminating in the in-between of things. “Monsoon” is a quiet, solitary affair designed to communicate how isolating it can be to travel alone in a big city, especially one you have a fragmentary relationship to. Golding, though square-jawed and devastatingly handsome enough to convince you he’s stepped straight out of a magazine spread, displays a laid-back realness his previous films haven’t called for. He’s a terrific match for Hong Khaou’s unflashy approach, and while yes, some viewers may groan that the straight Golding is playing a gay character, what’s most quietly revolutionary about “Monsoon” is that it makes no show out of gayness at all. This is a gentle and joyous film not to be slept on, even as its low-key aura lulls you into a soothed state of mind.
“Monsoon” opens in select theaters, virtual cinemas, and on VOD on Friday, November 13. Head to Strand Releasing’s film page for how to watch it.