Jason Wood, Creative Director of Film and Culture, talks to Monsoon director Hong Khaou about his experience making the film, shooting on location in Vietnam, and exploring the repercussions of the American Vietnamese war from a different perspective.
Jason Wood: Like the wonderful Lilting, Monsoon offers a rich and poignant reflection on the struggle for identity in a place where the past weighs heavily on the present. This seems to be a theme that has real personal resonance for you. Can you takes us into greater detail to explain why this might be? I imagine it directly relates to your own identity and being Cambodian-Chinese by birth.
Hong Khaou: I’ve always had this struggle to try and define myself, this tug and pull between my cultural and national identity – this is something that weighs on me. I think maybe it’s because I wasn’t born here and have very little memory of my past and yet I don’t entirely feel as if I always belong here nor Cambodia. It’s a very difficult thing to articulate, I’m British and I see this as a very British film, but the feeling of dislocation does weigh on me. I wonder if it’s because I’m the first generation after my parents, that I carry this senses of an internal conflict.
JW: Kit, the protagonist in Monsoon, returns to the land that he has fled and suffers cultural displacement. I wondered, firstly, how closely this chimed with your own personal experiences and of those of Henry Goulding, who wrote of his own sense of confusion and displacement when he returned to Malaysia.
HK: During rehearsal Henry and I talked about this a lot. This feeling of not always feeling you belong wherever that is. He was able to tap into this as a way to get under the skin of Kit’s character. The difference is that Kit is going through a prolonged period of grief where his parents’ past keeps colliding with his present and affecting him, making him ask searching questions about his identity, the encounter he has with Lewis etc.
JW: I believe that Kit appears in every frame of the film. Can you say more about how you worked together to enable Henry to carry this huge challenge? He pulls it off with such lightness of touch.
HK: Henry’s performance was beautiful to watch. We spent a lot of time talking about the tone and aesthetic of Monsoon. I was very clear I wanted Kit to carry this weight of his past, this sense of dislocation. It’s a credit to Henry, he was able to give a nuanced and intimate performance. We talked about finding ways to externalise his internal struggle. It’s a very quiet film and the details are important. I wanted the film to have this feeling we’re watching the unfolding of a very personal story, and that we’re only a couple of steps behind him, and yet when he goes through these heartfelt moments we should feel it with him.
JW: You have a gift for choosing lead actors. Following on from the above was Henry’s sharing some of the sensibilities of his character one of the main reasons you sought him out or was it more a combination of what you had seen from him on other projects? He also has the benefit of being a very recognisable and acclaimed figure with a huge and ever-growing fan base.
HK: When we cast Henry none of us had any idea about the impact that Crazy Rich Asians would have. The film hadn’t been released then, we couldn’t see it and to be honest I didn’t know about the buzz and anticipation around the film. The casting of Henry was purely on audition and spending a bit of time working through a handful of scenes with him – that’s what convinced me. Like you said Kit is in every frame of this and it needed someone that‘s able to embody that, to give us access to some of his internal struggles. Monsoon is an intimate and reflective film; Henry was so good at allowing us access to that.
JW: How did shooting the film outside of the UK influence your approach to the material in both a thematic, logistical and aesthetic sense? You would have gone back to the country of your birth and so I wondered how this experience affected you. Was it cathartic? Enlightening? Inspiring?
HK: Filming in Vietnam was incredible, just incredible. When you first arrive in Vietnam it’s impossible not to think of the American Vietnamese conflict, it’s all around you, the remnants, the reverberation is felt. Maybe more so for my generation. I also wanted to show this ambitious, thriving metropolis that is Saigon. It was important to not depict Vietnam as a victim. The country is going through this vast transformation and I wanted to express that. Transition is a big theme in Monsoon, I feel all the characters are going through a transition of sorts, the past and the present, the generational effect, the old and the young’s attitude towards the war. It was important we filmed there, to capture this richness, it gave the film an authenticity.
JW: I read an earlier interview that you had always wanted to make a film about the Vietnam war but one that differed from the US studio system and which was told quietly, with interconnecting characters and with nuance. I’d be interested to hear how much of a challenge it was to realise this and if there were any films or texts of any sort that influenced your thinking, in a positive or negative way.
HK: I grew up on a staple diet of Vietnam war films from the American viewpoint and that’s been the dominant perspective in the west. Academically, you know they are a biased take. Vietnamese characters were reduced to clichés, to stock characters. I’ve always wanted to readdress that. That was the biggest challenge for me, to maintain the shape the film that I wanted to make without It becoming didactic or polemic. There are too many books to list but the three that really moved me were:
The Sorrow of War By Bao Ninh
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Vietnam: The Definitive Oral History, Told From All Sides by Christian G. Appy
JW: Without wishing to single out your technical team, I have always found the work of DOP Benjamin Kracun to be really impressive. He has an ability to be equally at home with faces as he is with landscapes. What factors drew you to working with him?
HK: The camera language was vital for this film. It was paramount we get that right. For a film like this the quiet and nuanced visual language helped to bolster the themes. The cinematography had to help the subtext. I love it when the cinematography can do that. I know Ben’s work very well. What drew me to search him out was a film he shot called The Comedian by Tom Shkolnik. I really liked the intimacy in that film and this sense of feeling alienated in London. Ben has a beautiful way of capturing shots that also support the themes.
JW: I love the fact that the film is being released by Peccadillo, where you worked for many years. It must be wonderful to know that you are in such good hands with the release of the film.
HK: Yeah me too. There’s a sense of coming full circle to have them release Monsoon. I can write a whole thesis about Peccadillo Pictures. It’s one of those companies I cared greatly about, creatively and politically. It’s so important what they do for queer representation. Tom has been a steadfast in that. I have nothing but admiration and respect for them. If you look back, Tom was releasing films like Taxi Zum Klo, Pink Narcissus and Wild Side (Sébastien Lifshitz) just to name a few when the greater society didn’t think there were any merits in supporting stories like these.
JW: What are you hoping audiences discover with the film? It will have been a while before the film played to a cinema audience after screening at LFF and other international festivals.
HK: I hope it can chime with some of the audiences. In a time where I feel there’s now room to have a discourse about refugees and immigration, I hope Monsoon can add to that conversation.
JW: Finally, and it is now de rigeur to ask this, but how have you been spending lockdown? Reading, viewing, writing? Has it allowed you a sense of space and an idea for projects for the future?
HK: The beginning of lockdown was selfishly OK for me. That’s pretty much how I spend my days really, in a room on my own, writing. I was able to finish a draft of a new screenplay. We binged on so much TV shows. I think that’s the most amount of TV I’ve watched in a long while. I’m about to start shooting the second series of Baptiste for BBC. We shoot in three weeks. I am very glad to be working to be honest.
Catch Monsoon in our cinemas from Fri 25 Sep.