A film about Vietnam that's not about the Vietnam war--in fact, not about Europeans at all--THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA is precious, tranquil, and serenely beautiful.
The film opens in Saigon in 1951. Pretty, clever Mui (Lu Man San), a 10-year-old country girl, arrives at the beautiful house where she will work as a servant. She is taken in by an older serving woman, Thi (Nguyen Anh Hoa), who patiently teaches the child her chores. The nameless family, whom
she will come to know intimately, live a comfortable middle-class life, but beneath the surface there is evidence of unhappiness. The Mother (Truong Thi Loc), who runs a fabric shop, mourns the daughter she once had; though she loves her three sons, they can never replace the girl, who died of a
fever. She grows to love Mui almost like her lost daughter. The Father (Tran Ngoc Trung), cultivated and handsome, periodically disappears with all the family's money, leaving them destitute and sometimes not returning for months. His mother (Vo Thi Hai) blames her daughter-in-law, claiming that
if she made him happy, he wouldn't do such things. The two older boys scarcely give Mui a thought, but the youngest takes malicious delight in tormenting her. The film's first section is a gentle observation of Mui's relationship with the family, the garden--in which the titular papaya tree
grows--and the neighbors as she cooks, cleans, serves meals, and acquiesces to the rhythms of life around her. There is an abundance of incidents--the widowed Grandmother is courted by an older man, Mother tries to make do when Father disappears, the middle son acts out his silent unhappiness by
dripping wax on ants--but no real story in the commercial sense.
The action resumes 10 years later, when the eldest son has married and his wife insists that Mother fire Mui. She complies, but finds her work with Khuyen (Vuong Hoa Hoi), a composer and friend of her son, and in parting makes Mui a gift of a beautiful set of silk pajamas and graceful jewelry.
Khuyen, on whom Mui has a crush that dates back to childhood, lives a highly Westernized life. His apartment is filled with European furniture, and his chic girlfriend models her clothes and make-up on French fashion magazines. Mui charms him with her simple grace and desire to create an
atmosphere of spiritual harmony. Slowly, they fall in love, and acknowledge their bond the day he comes home early to find her dressed in her best clothes, trying on his girlfriend's lipstick: he sees that Mui is beautiful, as well as kind and generous of spirit. They marry, and the film ends with
Khuyen teaching the pregnant Mui to read.
THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA is a memory film, dedicated to evoking the scents, sights, sounds and sensations of a specific time in the past. First-time feature filmmaker Tran Anh Hung, born in Vietnam but raised in Paris, evokes a bygone world that seems nothing short of mythic in light of the
images most Americans--and most Westerners--associate with Vietnam. THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA is all detail, from the way the milky sap runs down a papaya stem after the fruit has been cut, to the sound of raindrops on the garden stones or the sight of ants carrying crumbs across a windowsill. The
film's first half seems like a woodland fairy tale; it would come as no surprise if the butterflies whispered secrets to Mui in the garden, or if the wild birds ate from her hand.
The second half is a different sort of fairy tale, a Cinderella story in which a pure, dreamy girl is rescued by the prince she has secretly worshipped in her heart, and a shallow young man learns that sometimes the very things he seeks are already at his feet. There's something awkward about
Mui and Khuyen's story-book romance, at least to Western sensibilities. It smacks of the privilege of class--well-born Khuyen can pluck the little peasant Mui from her servitude with one gesture of his noble hand--and seems to cater to a dehumanizing fantasy about the virtues of meekness and
servility in women. But this may well be a cultural stumbling block; writer-director Tran described the film as a celebration of "the freshness and beauty of [his] mother's gestures," and Mui is a force, if a particularly gentle one, with which to be reckoned, not a beautiful object to be admired
and possessed. In any event, as an evocation of things past, THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA is a remarkable and modestly enchanting film.
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: NR
- Review: A film about Vietnam that's not about the Vietnam war--in fact, not about Europeans at all--THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA is precious, tranquil, and serenely beautiful. The film opens in Saigon in 1951. Pretty, clever Mui (Lu Man San), a 10-year-old country… (more)