Contrary to its title, Hong Khaou and his crew went to Vietnam to shoot his second feature film, Monsoon, a few weeks before the monsoon season began. It was a practical call; frequent loud rainfall would be extremely disruptive to a film shooting on location with a tight budget.
“But it came early,” laughs Khaou, back in London. “For the first week, we spent a lot of time waiting for the rain to pass.”
It was one of many ways in which Monsoon presented a greater challenge for Khaou than his first micro-budget film Lilting, which was shot largely in London. Monsoon follows a British man named Kit (Henry Golding) grappling with his cultural identity as he returns to Vietnam after the death of his mother, a story which borrows elements of Khaou’s own life. Research for the film and the shoot itself took Khaou back to the country he grew up in (Khaou is Cambodian, but spent his childhood in Vietnam).
Watch: The latest Monsoon trailer below...
“Vietnam is going through this incredible transitional period, when you see the past and you see the future sitting side by side, and that's one of the motifs in the film,” he says.
“It needed us to (shoot) there, and I think by doing that, it made our film look more expensive than it actually was. We couldn't close the streets down - we literally plunged our actors into those moments, and it's quite frightening sometimes, because of the traffic.”
As Kit meets with his cousin and explores options to scatter his mother’s ashes, his disconnection with the place he was born only grows, particularly after he strikes up a romance with Lewis (Parker Sawyers), a gregarious American expat and son of a Vietnam vet who has made Vietnam his home. Isolating cultural differences leave Kit feeling adrift in his homeland - an emotion Khaou is familiar with.
“I'm not Vietnamese, but I'm in this really weird world because I can't really say I belong to Cambodia because I have no memories of Cambodia - I left when I was just a baby,” he says.
“It’s this weird feeling of not quite belonging there, and then there'll be times back in the UK where I don't quite feel I belong sometimes as well. I wanted that feeling to permeate the film.”
Sawyers says the chaos of filming on location actually strengthened his performance, and helped him understand the feelings of cultural displacement faced by Kit and Lewis. “You can sort of just be yourself, because there's so many people focused on their own lives,” he says. “I'm 6'4 and black, and nobody even looked at me twice when I was walking the streets, so it definitely helped me understand that Lewis probably went there to explore his past, but also was able to lose himself in the city. And when you do that, in my experience, you kind of find yourself.”
Kit carries a strange sense of guilt, says Khaou, “for having been that person that's able to escape” - tied to his family’s skewed perception of the West. “Some of our relatives back in Cambodia have this really odd perception that I'm incredibly wealthy because I live in London,” says Khaou. “And then when I went to visit (my cousin), he had a giant car and five iPads and a house; everything I don't have.”
Kit’s discomfort is sharpened in moments such as a train journey on which a French tourist mistakes him for a local, speaking to him in slow, childish English - a real-life memory of Khaou’s. “When I'm in Vietnam, a lot of foreigners or Westerners assume that I'm local and that my English isn't great, so sometimes they speak to me in a slightly condescending way,” he says. “I wanted to show that as a way to show that Kit is slightly lost in between.”
Monsoon breathes with a poetic, almost dreamlike atmosphere, with the richness of Vietnamese life providing a detailed backdrop that only accentuates Kit’s loneliness. Even when the screen is teeming with people or alive with colour, Kit is elsewhere, often drifting at the edge of the frame, almost outside his own reality. But as he opens up to Lewis, and the two men share their personal connections to Vietnamese history, a tenderness develops between them that leaves a profound impact on them both.
“I saw them as these two people who see themselves as foreigners in a country that has shaped them and their family so much,” says Khaou. “And maybe they are able to find something with each other together, whatever that is.
“I wanted the political to bind to the personal,” he continues. “I wanted these two characters to be born after war. And because of that, they are a product of it, whether they like it or not, as they find some kind of charm or delight or future in one another. I think their parents' political past kind of collides forward to interrupt that.”
Logistical challenges arose once again when it came to filming intimate scenes between the two men; despite nothing explicit being shown on screen, Khaou was met with opposition by local film authorities.
“At the beginning the government didn't want us to film (those scenes) in the country,” he says. “Which is really annoying, because we then heard that apparently other productions made by local filmmakers, with the same kind of queer content, and even far more explicit than what we filmed, was allowed to be filmed. And so we had to kind of find a gentle way to speak to them again to allow us, and luckily they gave us permission. But there was a period where were going to shoot all these scenes - and some of them are just kissing scenes - in Bangkok.”
Khaou was told it was down to them being a foreign production, “and I guess they were being more conservative with us, and they didn't want to give out the message that Vietnam is this kind of a country,” he says. “In Vietnam, homosexuality isn't legal, and nor is it illegal, so it's a really kind of odd grey area… like any country, there's a kind of a kind of pathetic fear of queer people, that kind of mistrust of somebody that's different or unknown. But I didn't have any instances of the (Vietnamese) crew being homophobic.”
With that hurdle overcome, it was important to Khaou for his film to not bind Kit and Lewis to any sort of coming out story - but to simply show two queer men discovering a deep, natural connection with each other.
“I really wanted Kit and Lewis to not have any baggage of their sexuality,” he says. “I wanted gay characters to be absolutely comfortable in their skin, so that their struggles were more of a cultural identity, national identity, rather than a sexual identity. I wanted to show two gay characters who were very comfortable - hence the bar scene when they kiss. I just wanted it to be a wholehearted kiss.”
Monsoon is in UK cinemas and available digitally from September 25.