As prescribed by Paulina Constancia
“The Scent of the Green Papaya” is Tran Anh Hung’s tranquilly beautiful film about a lost Vietnam, a peaceful, orderly place not yet touched by wartime. The film begins in Saigon in 1951, in a household safely insulated from the first rumblings of trouble. The family in question has more personal problems, since these people are still mourning the death of a young daughter several years earlier, and since the husband (Tran Ngoc Trung) has a history of disappearing for long periods with his family’s money. The wife (Truong Thi Loc) endures these desertions with the stoicism the film generally ascribes to Vietnamese women.
Into this family comes Mui (Lu Man San), a lovely 10-year-old servant girl and a contemporary of the daughter who died. The camera watches Mui contemplatively as she learns her new duties and does her hard-working best to keep her masters happy. Mui is someone who smiles knowingly at the sight of ants lifting heavy burdens, and who communes effortlessly with the natural forces all around her. The film works hypnotically as it gazes upon the leaves, birds, frogs and insects that are welcome parts of Mui’s world.
Despite Mui’s status as a servant, she manages to enjoy a life of more constancy and quiet joy than do those around her. The film chronicles the series of small changes that rearrange the life of the family, all the while sustaining the rhythm of womanly work that shapes Mui’s existence. Mr. Hung’s view of placid, spiritually elevated Vietnamese womanhood poses its problems, since Mui is so often seen scrubbing floors or shining shoes. Fortunately, this misplaced romanticism is well outweighed by the film’s haunting visual loveliness.
“The Scent of the Green Papaya” takes its title from a childhood memory of the director’s. Mr. Hung, who was born in Vietnam and grew up mostly in France, has said that “the smell of green papaya is for me a childhood memory of maternal gestures.” The papaya also provides a useful metaphor, since in its green state it is apparently considered a vegetable, and it is thought to blossom into a fruit later on. Mui herself follows a similar evolution as the film unfolds.
During the latter part of the film, Mui is seen as a quiet, graceful 20-year-old (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) who needs a new position once her original employers’ lives have changed. She winds up as a devoted servant to the handsome musician she has gazed at admiringly since her girlhood. This musician, seen at his Steinway playing Gershwin-like melodies and engaged to a thoroughly liberated Vietnamese glamour girl, is part of a world Mui has barely seen before. But she does her wordless, gracious best to accommodate him. The film’s idea of what might ultimately liberate Mui is every bit as nostalgic as its other memories.
“The Scent of the Green Papaya” marks a luxuriant, visually seductive debut for Mr. Hung, whose film is often so wordlessly evocative that it barely needs dialogue. Reaching into the past for its precisely drawn memories, it casts a rich, delicate spell.
Watch the movie trailer of The Scent of Green Papaya