Glass interviews Hong Khaou about his new film Monsoon

LONDON-BASED filmmaker Hong Khaou won critical acclaim for his 2014 debut feature, Lilting, a touching low-budget drama which examined the emotional turmoil following the death of a young Chinese-Cambodian-British man. Jackson Caines spoke to Khaou about his new film, Monsoon, which is playing at the London Film Festival.

Hong Khaou talks Monsoon

Is there an autobiographical dimension to Monsoon?
I wouldn’t say Monsoon is autobiographical but it is very personal. It’s about a British-Vietnamese man, Kit, who goes back to his birth country for the first time since he left as a little boy thirty years ago after the Vietnam-American war. He returns to a country that he doesn’t quite remember and a language he doesn’t speak, and the film examines this dislocation. There’s a generation of immigrants like myself who are grappling with that question of cultural identity, and I wanted to tell that personal story but in a way that binds the political to the personal.

The odd thing is, I’m not Vietnamese. I was born in Cambodia but I left when I was just a baby. I grew up in Vietnam and all my childhood memories are of Vietnam. In the early drafts, I was thinking, ‘should I make him Cambodian?’. Through writing and re-writing, he took on the shape of a British-Vietnamese man, even though I’m not. It allowed me to talk about that conflict that I’ve always wanted to talk about, but in a way that wasn’t too in-your-face.

It sounds like there are some thematic similarities to Lilting.
You’re right, they’re both talking about cultural differences and the struggle for identity. I think Lilting, more than anything, had a very strong sense of grief, as seen through the prism of inter-cultural and inter-generational differences. This one is quieter. It’s more of an internal search.

I actually had the idea for Monsoon before I had the idea for Lilting. It’s something I had wanted to explore for a long time, I just didn’t know how to put it into a structure that could work as a film. So I went to the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab, which gave me a grant so I could go back to Vietnam and Cambodia to do further research. Then we got development money from the BFI to write it.

Henry Golding in Monsoon

What sort of challenges did you face shooting in Vietnam?
It was insanely complicated and bureaucratic at times. It took time for everyone to gel and there were many moments where things were lost in translation. At the same time, they welcomed us with open arms, and shooting in Vietnam gave the film a really authentic quality. Despite having more money this time, we were still on a very small budget and we couldn’t shut down streets, for example. So we literally just plunged our actors into those moments. I think by doing that, it made our film look a lot more expensive than it actually is!

Were there any particular films that provided inspiration for Monsoon?
The style was very much inspired by filmmakers from Taiwan like Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and there’s a particular film by Yang called Yi Yi which we referenced a lot. Visually, I wanted it to be almost like we’re with Kit but also a couple of steps behind him. What I didn’t want was this distant, observational quality — I wanted the audience to feel some intimacy, but at the same time to not always have all the information. At the beginning we shot off reflections a lot, as a way of showing the distance between the protagonist and this land he’s returned to but feels distant from.

How did you go about working on the character of Kit with actor Henry Golding?
We had a week of rehearsal where we talked a lot about who Kit is and spent time finding those different layers to the character. Henry really connected to the script, to the duality of the protagonist, feeling British and at times not feeling British. He understands those things. After a couple of days of rehearsal he really found his feet in terms of conveying the subtle permutations of Kit’s inner struggle.

Traveling through Vietnam in Monsoon

What sort of relationships does Kit form while in Vietnam?
As Kit travels from Saigon to Hanoi he meets various supporting characters. There’s an American character called Lewis, played by Parker Sawyers, and a distant cousin played by this beautiful actor in Vietnam called David Tran. Somehow these characters all allow Kit to examine why his parents left and to understand a bit more about his birth country, and about himself. When I was writing the script my idea was that the different characters he meets represent different stages of Vietnam – the past, present and future. But that was just for me, it’s not important whether the audience gets that or not.

In an increasingly polarised political climate, do you think films like this can help people to recognise the complexities of cultures?
When I was writing the script three years ago, refugees and immigrants were very prominent in the mainstream media, but there was this refusal to have a proper discourse about it. It was very polemical and polarising. I remember thinking that I wanted to inject a human experience into that, because that’s what was missing at that time. What I love is when a filmmaker tackles an issue in a way that shows a different perspective. I hope I can do that.

Do you have any future projects lined up?
I’m currently adapting a German play, The Ugly One, into a film. It’s very different to anything that I’ve done before, far broader and more plot-driven. Having made Monsoon, I think now is a good time to do something a bit bigger and bolder.


by Jackson Caines