The Scent of Green Papaya
Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen
Vietnamese Title: Mui du du xanh
Director: Tran Anh Hung
Writing Credits: Patricia Petit, Tran Anh Hung
Cast: Tran Nu Yen Khe, Lu Man San, Truong Thi Loc, Nguyen Anh Hoa
Year Released: 1993
Runtime: 104 min
Rating: *** (out of four stars)
The enigma of The Scent of Green Papaya is how a viewer can be so entranced by a film that lacks a compelling plot, has scant character development, and is paced so slowly. The answer must be that this film has somehow managed to find a resonance inside us. It is a coming of age story, suffused with lyrical poetry, and has a beauty and gentleness that is completely alluring.
The sounds of insects and street vendors, the fine reproduction of the houses, the shops, the furniture, the street outside, are all so detailed and authentic that it seems we are transported into Vietnam. However, it is not even filmed in Vietnam, but on a sound stage in Paris. Although the era depicted by the film is during the French occupation before American involvement, during a more serene and idyllic period of Vietnams history. It is an impressive debut work of writer-director Tran Anh Hung.
The story focuses on Mui, played by Man San Lu, a 10-year-old servant girl from the countryside who arrives to work for a wealthy family whose fortunes are declining. The first half of the film is more interesting and you learn about how she learns her duties quickly, is hardworking, has a gentle nature, and a keen sense of observation. She delights watching an ant carry a load, a tree frog sitting on a leaf, and the seeds inside an unripe green papaya. We care for her, empathise with her frailty, and we are apprehensive about her future.
The household she works for is a 3-generation family. These include an elderly reclusive grandmother, a father who does no work, lounges at home all day, playing his music, drinking wine, and periodically absconds with the family's hard-earned savings to disappear for weeks with a mistress. The mother suffers in silence, and continues to be haunted by her daughter who died at the age of 10, the same age as Mui, and to whom she bears a striking resemblance. The eldest of her three sons, has a friend, Khuyen, with whom Mui has a secret attraction. The youngest son is naughty and taunts Mui by trying to topple a bucket of water, dangling a dead chameleon in front of her, and urinating into a vase.
After the grandmothers death, there is a fast forward jump of 10 years. This second half of the film is less compelling. The family fortunes have declined further, and Mui, now played by the director's wife Tran Nu Yen-Khe, is released to work for the eldest son's friend, Khuyen. As a parting gift, the mother gives her a cheongsam and some jewellery that she says she would have given to her daughter had she lived. Khuyen is a classical pianist and already has a girlfriend, and he does not notice Mui. Then one day when she tries out the cheongsam and jewellery, and becomes transformed into an attractive dignified lady. Khuyen falls in love with her, and when his girlfriend discovers their association, she breaks up with him. Thus he is free to continue their relationship, and he teaches her how to read.
Everything in this film is subdued and understated. There is a gracefulness and simplicity which is hypnotic. Tran Anh Hung brings out the subtleties of Mui's changing perception of her world and how she transforms from a child into an adult. The film captures our attention because of Muis innocence and vulnerability. The characters seem a bit distant, and Tran emphasizes this by using long shots from behind windows and open doors, and tracking shots from one from to another. There is a sense of paralysis in the household. The grandmother had not overcome the grief of her long dead husband and remains trapped inside her bedroom. The master of the house is unable to work and earn a living. His wife has still not overcome her guilt concerning the death of her daughter a decade earlier. She continues to place her hard-earned money in the same box, which the husband continues to plunder to finance his disappearing trips with a mistress. The muted responses of all the characters in the film reflect an authentic Asian reserve. By slowing the pace of the movie, the director emphasizes the contemplative nature of the film. The fine cinematography captures the sensuous imagery of nature and the nostalgia of the period. It is an era in Asia during the 1950s in which many countries in South-East Asia looked and felt the same.
The film celebrates beauty, tranquility, and the strength of the human spirit. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film in 1993, and it won two awards at Cannes. It is highly recommended viewing.