Helping His Country Find a Voice : Director: Tran Anh Hung brings the unspoken side of Vietnam to the screen in this quiet film, set in 1951 Saigon.


For fledgling Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, “The Scent of Green Papaya” has the sweet smell of first feature self-fulfillment.

His quiet film, set in 1951 Saigon, centers around a young girl who grows up in servitude and eventually falls in love with her wealthy employer--considered a major taboo in Vietnamese society. For Tran, 32, the film is a means to capture the unspoken side of Vietnamese life; to show the people’s humanity, which he says “hasn’t been seen at the movies.”

His first film is the antithesis of Oliver Stone’s violent and lavish productions, which focus on Vietnam War lore.


“Oliver Stone’s films interest me a lot, but Oliver Stone really isn’t talking about Vietnam. Vietnam for Oliver Stone is like an initial trauma from an American point of view,” Tran says. “The films of Oliver Stone and others about Vietnam influenced me concerning the lack of films about my country. The driving force for me was to show Vietnam in another light.”

Tran’s tale of 10-year-old Mui unfolds in hushed tones. As she shows up on the doorstep of a bourgeois Saigon family to begin her life as a servant, it is hard to believe the rambling, intricately detailed Asian house is set in Paris. Tran had scouted locations throughout Vietnam for weeks, but found that three decades of war and turmoil had wiped out any chance of finding a big, airy house in which to tell his story.

Determined to build his main set on native turf, he began to search for locations. But soon, things began to unravel. His set designer was forced to abandon the project for personal reasons. And the experience typified what Tran had come to expect in trying to bring his fable to life in Vietnam: Since there is no film industry in Vietnam, there was no camera crew, no sound engineer, only substandard film labs and no actors to speak of--the profession is generally looked down upon in Vietnamese society. Among artists, only painters and poets are held in high esteem.

So Tran and his French producer Christophe Rossignon headed back to Paris to build what they needed. Their quest became the metaphor for Tran’s journey into filmmaking: With nothing to build from, create your own.

That holds true for Vietnamese filmmaking in general. “It is a mystery to me why other films have not been made by Vietnamese,” Tran says. “Films are under-appreciated. If a Japanese filmmaker chooses to make a film about Japan, he can learn from great Japanese directors like (Yasujiro) Ozu or (Kenji) Mizoguchi. But in Vietnam, there is a lack of cinematic heritage, no Vietnamese filmmakers as a resource. You have to build from the beginning.” And Tran has found himself wedged in that unique role--the pioneer of a new industry for his homeland.

Born in Vietnam in 1962, Tran moved to Paris with his family in 1975 when he was 12. He studied cinematography at the Ecole Lumiere, where, in 1987, he made “La Femme Mariee de Nam Xuong,” a ghost story and his first short film. Another short, “The Stone of Waiting,” followed four years later.


Tran and his fiancee, Tran Nu Yen-Khe, the actress who plays Mui at age 20, stopped off in Los Angeles for interviews last week before heading to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. “Green Papaya,” being distributed in the United States by First Look Pictures, opened in New York Saturday and in two Los Angeles theaters today.


Tran Yen-Khe, like Tran, is a native of Vietnam who moved to Paris for her schooling. As one of only two veteran actors in the film, she was also heavily involved in the set design. The other veteran actor, Nguyen Anh Hoa, who plays an older servant who trains the young Mui, became an acting coach, tutoring the film’s younger Vietnamese actors living in France who were unfamiliar with the typical Vietnamese gestures and body language.

She also taught the actress playing Mui at 10, Lu Man San, how to prepare a papaya, a staple of Vietnamese life.

But papayas almost didn’t make it as a staple of the film. Each time a papaya tree was brought to the set, it lost its leaves and died. Two days before shooting, Tran and Rossignon found themselves without the film’s namesake, but they weren’t about to change the title. Instead, they kept the tree trunk and glued on fake leaves and real papayas.

The papaya, which is cooked like a vegetable when green and eaten as a fruit when ripe, is something Tran watched his mother prepare as a servant when growing up. It became the seed of an idea to show how women carry the household responsibilities and the men lay idle. And the film became an outgrowth of Tran’s relationship with his mother, a film in which he says his goal was to leave his audience with a calming “rhythm that depicts the soul and manner of Vietnamese life.” In his next film, “Cyclo,” also produced by Rossignon and penned by Tran, he plans to shake up his audience.

Like “Green Papaya,” Tran taps into memories of his relationship with his father to build the central character, a poor 18-year-old boy, struggling to survive as a bicycle taxi driver. The film opens with the death of the young man’s father.


“What I want to show is what I saw when I returned home in ’91 for the first time since 1975,” Tran said. “The people there work so hard. My first impression was the sheer exhaustion of the people. . . . They were so tired they were falling asleep in the streets. To earn a bowl of rice you have to work yourself to the bone.” But he stops there, saying his reaction to what he saw will be answered in the film.

“With this film, I want to create a meeting with three films I admire”--”The Bicycle Thief,” “The Pickpocket” and “Taxi Driver.” Unlike “Green Papaya,” “Cyclo” will be peppered with plenty of violence “because I think it is inevitable when you speak of Vietnam today,” he says. And unlike “Papaya,” the movie will be shot in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon.

“When people watch this film (“Papaya”), they have to put together the plot twists,” Tran says. “In ‘Cyclo’ the plots will be more scattered . . . very strong fragments. I like for the viewer to participate in my films. I like to make them work.”