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Never Come Back: Reclaiming Roots In 'Monsoon' And 'Residue'
Soma Ghosh , October 9th, 2020 10:18

Two 2020 films tackle masculinity and non-whiteness within a present-day diaspora, examining the myth of the conquered home to varying effect. Soma Ghosh explores how Monsoon and Residue go about reclaiming roots

I was born in the diaspora, bearing the guilt of parents who left. When we went back to Kolkata, I didn’t belong. My confident bideshi voice got my aunt pickpocketed at The Victoria Memorial. Outside the fake British pub on Park Street, I was groped by two guys who’d spotted the tell-tale G-string under my Fab India flares. They sniggered at each other in Bengali: she’s a no-knickers from Over There. When I came home to Britain, I wasn’t from here. Monsoon and Residue are two films exploring this burden of the lost home; the first failing to penetrate our pain, the other doing so in a blood-soaked stream of consciousness that crests to a gratifyingly doomy end.

In Monsoon, Kit (Henry Golding) is a British Vietnamese-Cambodian man whose parents fled the Vietnam War and never returned. They raised Kit and his brother Henry to love their version of Englishness: the Queen, the Scouts, camping and boil-in-the-bag rice. The boys don’t speak Vietnamese. They’ve barely retained their links with their extended family, with whom Kit reunites as he brings his mother’s ashes to Vietnam. Cruising online while searching for a suitable resting place, Kit hooks up with Lewis, an American fashion entrepreneur whose father fought in the Vietnamese war and was driven to suicide by PTSD.

I wrote this summer in The Quietus of Spike Lee’s laboured cultural jokes about Vietnam and colonisation in Da 5 Bloods, a film that flounders under its bombast. In a time when racist bigotry is being rightly burned, critics may feel politically obliged to praise Monsoon’s British Cambodian writer-director Hong Khaou as giving the Vietnamese side of the story. As a bideshi brownie familiar with humiliation and loneliness, my question will always be: how good is our art? Kit and Lewis’s bald exchanges on the relative sufferings of the Vietnamese and Americans feel forced and out of place. Khaou’s real concern is alienation. It’s a timely subject for the pandemic audience, tourists of our suspended lives. Unfortunately, this is a film so gagged by its alienation that it says nothing.

The content is promising. The ex-pat myth is that we travel “back” to our roots to find ourselves. Pasting our Please and Thank You over each economic exchange, we stick out a mile in the teeming streets of the East. Kit, with his open countenance and broad jaw, is the polite tourist personified. Wearing tailored shorts and a frank expression, Kit is conspicuously a Việt Kiều (a member of the diaspora, literally, “a Vietnamese sojourner”). As he drifts around galleries, civic spaces and market shacks, his superficial frankness – the kind with which Londoners order flat whites – announces Kit’s privilege without opening his mouth. It’s a pity that when he does, his revelations are underwhelming.

Why is Kit so phlegmatic? Why does he smile perpetually into the middle distance, like a child model for Laura Ashley who never shed the habit? And why does no beige apartment corridor, or teak restaurant vestibule escape Khaou’s wide open lens? Solitary travel combines boredom and momentousness, but Khaou overplays tension till it loses meaning. I imagine that Kit is going through bereavement. Certainly, he is hiding his queerness to his extended Vietnamese family.

Khaou’s bird’s eye shots of geometrical order and disorder, of scooters criss-crossing highways and pink lotus tea petals being picked in a room of squares and circles, reflect Kit’s distance from a history of conflict that cannot be summarized in one fell swoop. However, as the film admits, Kit’s pathological guilt – if that’s what it is – is not shared by the contemporary Vietnamese: “The kids here, they don’t care about the war any more. They want their careers. Their dreams.”

Khaou’s low-key conversations are underwritten, while his Lonely Planet wide frames insist on the significance of each city square and turquoise railing. Everyone – Kit, his cousin Lee (a heroic effort at subtext, by David Tran) and Kit’s lover, Lewis (the luminous Parker Sawyers) – speaks in glazed monotones as Khaou pushes them around his touristic long shots: walking, looking; never arriving.

Kit’s love affair with Lewis is a spark amid the torpor. When Kit mocks Lewis’ plea for sincerity on dating apps, he comes, briefly, to life. But Golding’s performance is so numb, I wondered whether Kit’s real trouble was a Beta Blocker dependency. Skyping in hotel rooms, Kit’s one-sided dialogue echoes the film’s emptiness. Monsoon is a fairly short feature, but I’d aged considerably after watching it.

By contrast, the similarly shortish Residue by breakout director Merawi Gerima blends the themes of guilt and masculinity in an emotional haze that never quite loses sight of the meanings of home. Guilt leaks into shame and longing. Gerima has reinvented Black New Wave, and it’s exciting and painful as hell.

Jay (Obi Nwachukwu) is a film-maker who’s writing a film about Q Street, his childhood stomping ground. Returning, he finds it beset by white gentrification: cocktail bars and uppity white girls with little white dogs who shit on his mother’s lawn. Excavators chew up the pavements where his old gang have spilled their blood. But Jay remains fastened, at first, on his artistic ambitions. He reunites, sort of, with friends Dion, Mikey and Delonte. But his homie Demetrius is missing. His ‘hood big brother Dion is doing serious time. Mikey is vulnerable to gangs and, possibly, addiction. Meanwhile Delonte (played with recalcitrant eloquence by Dennis Lindsey), scorns Jay’s pose of Black saviour:

Delonte: Why you wanna make a movie about Q street for?

Jay: Just tryin’ to give a voice to the voiceless.

Delonte: Nigga, who voiceless? [Later] You ain’t gonna save nobody. You ain’t gonna save me.

These are big themes, but Gerima eschews big speeches for everyday irritations. Jay comes home, but home is someplace else. Arriving to unload his gear into his mother’s basement, Jay is warned by a white neighbour to move his truck and turn down his music, or be reported to the cops. Sirens, voices and blue light signal these unseen patrols – unseen, that is, by white girls in the new bar, drinking mimosas, blood pooling, in Jay’s mind, under their shiny loafers.

Jay is a college grad who’s not clever enough to mind his neighbourhood’s codes. He gets caught unawares by a vicious mugger. He raises hackles by asking questions about Demetrius. That’s not how you play it – pushing for information on someone who needs to stay lost could get you both killed.

The cast is excellent. Obi Nwachukwu inches rivetingly between resignation and increasing rage. Gerima’s style, mingling realism and surrealism is, here and there, overly oblique, but never less than honest to Jay’s emotional disarray. The ‘residue’ of gentrification, the shit of the metaphorical little white dog on Black people’s homes, smears the scar tissue of this film. Violent sounds, blistered lights and muffled voices swell, as Jay’s friendship circle ruptures.

Brick, shadow and flesh spread over one another in dulled pigments. Inside darkened rooms, human bodies lie like land masses, prone to an erosion that has multi-generational consequences. The affectionate banter between Jay’s parents is ultimately no defence against the disease of socio-economic destruction.

“You can’t escape it,” says his father, “The world is a ghetto, just remember that.”

“You always on some Motown shit,” retorts Lavonne, Jay’s mother.

As grown men, the gang’s longing for safety and playfulness is poignantly delivered in a forest scene in which Jay visits his big bro, Dion. In fact, they are meeting in prison; this boyish freedom exists only in their minds.

On Q street, jail time and murder are like catching the flu – bound to get you, sooner or later. Jumpy handheld camera shots from behind enhance Jay’s feeling of being followed, listening for sirens and barks in the night. Meanwhile, neon flyers cheerily bully his parents to sell their home. Jay’s girlfriend, marooned in their perpetually twilit basement, wants to be her “best self” and go to the 4th of July party of their white neighbour, where spliffs are delivered in paper bags with hand-drawn smiley faces. What’s wrong with her aspiration? Wouldn’t you snap up one of these period houses, given the chance? Gerima cleverly seduces our middle-class eye, dwelling on blue doors that we call teal but in the old neighbourhood just looks tired.

I have always felt that making an identity out of political guilt serves no one. It’s offensive to patronize those I left behind, or to pretend I don’t prefer the freedom of the diaspora to the tribalism of my mother’s country. But if we don’t share the fate of our people, do we have the right to side with them? Following this summer’s police murders in America, Gerima has spoken of feeling Residue turning, on its release, from a hymn of love to vanishing Black neighbourhoods into a “weapon” in his hands. Those of us who leave can never come back. But it may be worth questioning what we’re willing to pay for a new sense of belonging.