“The Scent of Green Papaya,” is as graceful and delicate as its name, this movie reminisces that our illusions can turn into reality and gives us a wonderful aesthetic experience, very thoughtfully handled from the first time director Anh Hung Tran. This film is set in the background of Saigon during the 1950s and early ’60s, which reflects the time before the American War and Vietnam was not divided into North and South. The film’s nostalgia is a version of a more modest era based in large part on upper class yearnings for order and respect, representing the period of Vietnam’s history from a distance.
Although set in Vietnam, the film was shot entirely on a soundstage in Boulogne, France. The film won lots of accolades during its release. The Caméra d’Or prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, a César Award for Best Debut at the French annual film award ceremony, and was nominated for the 1993 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Scent of Green Papaya is made in Vietnamese language in 1993. The film stars director Anh Hung’s wife Tran Nu Yên-Kh. This is produced in France by Lazennec Production and also the director’s first collaboration with Vietnamese composer Tôn-Thât Tiêt, who subsequently wrote the music for two of his other films Cyclo and Vertical Ray of the Sun.
In this beautifully filmed drama, ten-year-old Mui (Lu Man San) arrives from the provinces of Vietnam to work as a servant girl in the home of a Saigon merchant family. The year is 1951. She is a shy and resourceful girl whose tasks include preparing and stir-frying vegetables, serving meals, dusting, scrubbing the tile floors and polishing shoes.
While Mui adapts effortlessly to her responsibilities, the merchant family doesn’t fare as well. The mother, who is still mourning the death of her daughter, is abandoned by her husband. Her two youngest sons act out their anger. The grandmother who lives upstairs grieves the loss of her loved ones. Like the ripening papaya, Mui blooms into a beautiful young woman (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) and eventually moves on to serve in the house of a musician/composer (Vuong Hoa Hoi) whom she has secretly adored for many years.
Writer and director Tran Anh Hung sees The Scent of Green Papaya as a portrait of a tranquil Vietnam unknown to most Westerners. On another level, the film is about everyday spirituality from an Eastern perspective. Mui, as a young girl, has learned the art of stopping the world. She savors the drop of milky sap on a leaf and looks with wonder at an ant carrying a heavy load. She dances the day away by relaxing into her chores. She has mastered the inner smile; her entire being radiates warmth and peace. And as a young woman, Mui shows that one must be patient with love, allowing it to unfold in its own special way. Then it can be cherished and tasted slowly.
The Scent of Green Papaya is a mild & delicate film, captivating individual scenes rather than narrative or character development. I always found this film a meditative experience. Considering a couple of beautiful moments and memorable sequences like a child pouring hot wax onto a troop of ants and watching them suffer, the youngest boy bullying Mui by first threatening to tip a bucket of dirty water over the floor she’s just scrubbed clean; urinating into an expensive vase and teasing her with a dead lizard hanging on the end of a fishing rod. The instant that younger Mui falls in love with the musician after serving him dinner, is an outstanding evocation of pure emotion; she walks away from the dinner table wearing an overwhelmingly genuine smile from ear to ear. However the most memorable moment of the film comes towards the end as the older Mui prepares and presents a perfect meal for her new master to the sound of his playing Clair de Lune on the piano, although the success of this scene might be more accurately attributed to Debussy’s music rather than Tran’s filmmaking.
The Scent of Green Papaya is not only the fruit, also the vases and screens that adorn the neighborhood landscape, even a drop of sap dripping onto a thick green leaf. Just as the film’s story is a series of small incidents that build almost imperceptibly to a dramatic climax. Visual backdrops are very aesthetic and the scenes depict the gradual and unhurried moment of shots, expose the domestic rituals and the astonishing sensuality of Mui’s story.
Filmmaker Tran Anh Hung, who was 12 when his family moved to France in 1975, attempted to shoot in Saigon, but logistical difficulties made Paris inevitable. Even though Nguyen Anh Hoa, who plays the old servant woman, had to be brought over from Vietnam to tutor the mostly amateur cast in authentic behavior, the director’s sureness of vision and remarkable control of the medium ensured that his native country’s singular way of seeing the world would be done justice. Besides the film’s flavor of warmth and beauty, it creates a magical feeling which is intended as a cultural memorial, and a fine and poignant one – it turns out to be a deeper experience of the picturesque world.
Tran is easily one of the greatest filmmakers working today- his work has a stanch beauty, a timeless originality and a haunting essence. Images from his films will be seared onto your mind, they will stay with you when you close your eyes and hopefully he will continue to produce such outstanding films for time to come.
- Written & Directed by Tran Anh Hung
- Produced by Christophe Rossignon
- Music by Tôn-Thât Tiêt
- Cinematography by Benoît Delhomme
- Editing by Nicole Dedieu and Jean-Pierre Roques
- Distributed by Président Films
- Release dates: June 8, 1993
- Running time: 104 minutes
- Country : France
- Language: Vietnamese