MOVIE REVIEW : Poignant ‘Scent of Green Papaya’ : The Cannes Winner Underscores the Decorum of Prewar Vietnam
“The Scent of Green Papaya,” a film as delicate and evocative as its name, recognizes that out of illusion can come reality.
Though its re-creation of the streets and houses of prewar Vietnam is ravishing, “Papaya” (selected theaters) was shot exclusively on a sound stage outside of Paris. And though its actors are all Vietnamese, almost every one had been tainted by French culture and had to be freshly tutored in the graceful gestures and body language of their homeland.
Yet so well did all of this artifice succeed that “Papaya” managed a number of remarkable firsts. It won the prestigious Camera d’Or at Cannes as best first feature for its writer-director Tran Anh Hung, is Vietnam’s first official submission for the best foreign language Oscar and is the first film to present a look from the inside at a culture and a sensibility we think we know but don’t, that of the once-divided country that was simultaneously our enemy and our friend.
And though there is no lack of incident or emotion in “Papaya,” it is primarily a fable-like memory film, an idealized tribute to the spirit of Vietnam’s beautiful prewar days and the concern with textures, colors, tastes and smells that made the simple acts of everyday life into a complete aesthetic experience.
Symbolizing the tranquil, unhurried pace of Vietnam past is Mui, first glimpsed as a 10-year-old girl (Lu Man San) arriving in Saigon in 1951 to become a servant for a well-to-do family. Innocent but curious and hard-working, with a surprisingly broad and cheery smile, Mui stands for the grace and beauty invested in ordinary things by a culture where women did the meaningful work but were constrained to remain in the shadows.
Two kinds of knowledge come to Mui as she quietly works, and what turns out to have lasting value are not the behind-closed-doors secrets of her employers but an understanding of what it means to perform ordinary tasks (like the preparing of unripe papaya as a breakfast vegetable) with delicacy and grace.
Mui’s mistress (Truong Thi Loc) not only runs the house but also the family cloth business, while her husband (Tran Ngoc Trung), distraught over the death of their daughter, rarely leaves the house and mostly ignores his two youngest sons. His own mother, a premature widow, rarely even leaves the second floor, much to the concern of Mr. Thuan (Nguyen Van Oanh), a discreet elderly admirer.
One of the points of Tran Anh Hung’s film is to underline this discretion, the decorum and restraint that was the rule in most strata of Vietnamese society, qualities that have become natural to Mui by the time the film jumps forward 10 years and becomes something of a Cinderella story.
Now a beautiful young woman (played by Tran Nu Yen-Khe), Mui finds herself working for Khuyen (Vuong Hoa Hoi), a wealthy classical composer and friend of her original family, a young man she has felt an attraction toward from the beginning. Still, she goes on as before, smiling and preparing savory Vietnamese dishes that cinematographer Benoit Delhomme photographs as if they were clusters of diamonds.
It really can’t be overemphasized how exquisite everything is in “The Scent of Green Papaya,” not only the food, but also the vases and screens that decorate the houses, 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, so it is visually, as all the careful, unhurried shots of domestic rituals and objects end up supplying an unexpected quiet sensuality to 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 correct 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.
Which makes it all the more unsettling, as the roar of a presumably military jet reminds us near the end, that the time was not far off when this most delicate civilization would be crushed to dust in a ruinous war. In addition to everything else it does, “The Scent of Green Papaya” is intended as a cultural memorial, and a fine and poignant one it turns out to be.
‘The Scent of Green Papaya’
Tran Nu Yen-Khe: Mui, 20 years old
Lu Man San: Mui, 10 years old
Truong Thi Loc: the mother
Nguyen Anh Hoa: Thi, the old servant
Vuong Hoa Hoi: Khuyen
Les Productions Lazennec production with La SFP Cinema and La SEPT Cinema, released by First Look Pictures. Director Tran Anh Hung. Producer Christophe Rossignon. Screenplay Tran Anh Hung. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. Editors Nicole DeDieu, Jean-Pierre Roques. Costumes Jean-Philippe Abril. Music Ton-That Tiet. Production director Eric Dangremont. Set designer Alain Negre. Set decorator Claude Sune. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
MPAA rating: unrated. Times guidelines: one scene of ants being tortured by a wayward child.