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Q&A with Hong Khaou

Tash Rajan speaks to Columbian born filmmaker Hong Khaou about his second feature film, Monsoon that premiered at the BFI London Film Festival

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Image Credit: Peccadillo Pictures / BloomerApp Media Production

Autumn has truly begun and with it the Film festival season. I caught up with Columbian born filmmaker Hong Khaou in advance of the BFI London Film Festival and the premier of his second feature; Monsoon.

I start by asking how he is feeling having been shortlisted for the IWC Shaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary award; an accolade designed to support exceptional British talent.

He replies, “it’s a real honour to be nominated for this - you know secretly, privately between friends you want to be nominated and I hope it can shine a light on the film.”

If won, the award grants the filmmaker £50k towards their next project, and the creative freedom that comes with it, as the Director goes onto explain.

“It would be amazing to win it, it would allow me to fully immerse myself and fully concentrate on being a filmmaker. Simply put, it would take away a lot of the external pressures and anxieties so that I could just take time to explore some of the ideas I have in my head so that I have time to explore them properly and through that find my voice. Rather than, maybe taking on things that I don’t necessarily want to do. it gives you space and room to be a filmmaker.”

Khaou is no stranger to the industry. Building on a history of good filmmaking the director gained the Sundance Institute/Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award towards creating Monsoon.

The film tells the story of Kit, a British Vietnamise Man played by Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians. The protagonist travels back to his homeland following the death of his parents. Having left at the age of 8 as a boat refugee, he has not returned to the country since. On his journey from Saigon to Hanoi, Kit searches for a place to scatter his parents' ashes, meets estranged family members and falls for Lewis; an African American whose father fought in the war. The title truly captures the thematic essence of the film, as the protagonist Kit rummages through his entire identity and endures a downpour of emotion.

When I ask Khaou why he chose the medium of film to tell this story, he gives the answer of a true artist. “Film is the only way that I can express things I care about - it’s the only way I knew how to do it.”.

Digging deeper into the history of the filmmaker, I ask why Monsoon was such an important story to tell.

“It’s interesting, to be honest it’s something I’ve always wanted to tell for a long time. I don’t know how to structure it, it was only when I got the Bursary from Sundance that I was able to go to Vietnam and Cambodia and really go back to those memories and places.

I also remember when I was writing this three years ago there was a lot of talk about refugees and immigration but there wasn’t really any wanting to have a discourse about anything - it was very polarising and polemic. And I think refugees were very much demonised and it was my way of adding to that discussion to show the human experience in that.

I remember when we came in 1983 we were very much welcomed in - our neighbours became our sponsors for citizenship, to this day, my mum still gets a Christmas card from her.”

These memories are almost surprising to hear now, amid such politically polarising times. Speaking with Khaou, I get the sense that this film is a real labour of love, his history woven into the present. That being said, the thematic tones of his earlier films continue to shine through, including those of Lilting (2014) which covers themes of grief, connection as well as love in all its forms. With this in mind I ask why it was important to maintain a strong thread of Romance throughout the film.

"That’s a good question. It was about -  I wanted to bind the political to the personal. I wanted to bind the political to the personal.

So, my protagonist, he meets this character called Lewis so he has this very similar thing to Kit in a sense in that he’s a man who’s African American so his father fought in that conflict. Without being too heavy handed about it I liked the idea that these two foreigners meet in this foreign land and somehow overcome some of those things, those conflicts that affected their parents - but they were able to overcome them as a product of that."

Although the film premieres this month, its official release is in 2020. I ask Khaou what he hopes audiences will take away?

"Making this film I genuinely wanted to leave the audience room and space for the to think about these things that we talk about with immigration and refugees. It takes a lot for parents to uproot their entire family - to cross entire oceans just to find safety and home - it’s not something you just wake up and do.

I genuinely hope people can think about the whole refugee issue and not think of it in extreme terms. One of the things I wanted to do with this film for example - with my protagonist Kit you know he grew up with no memories of his home land because his parents never told him about it. What I wanted to say in that, that the realisations of that, so much of what his parents built in the west was contingent on his parents getting over past traumas. And it was also their way of liberating him, to be who he wanted to be. So those are the things that I wish the media would talk about more. There’s almost no discussion on that."

Monsoon will be in cinemas in 2020 and is a must see for anyone looking to understand their neighbour better. Although as Hong says himself, this is not the “Friday night film that you watch with your partner” this film will bring a lot of nuances to the conversations we're having. Until then, you can watch Lilting on BFI player or Prime Video.

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