With accolades ranging from the Caméra d’Or prize at Cannes through to an Oscar nomination, the 1993 feature “The Scent of Green Papaya” lays strong claim to being the most critically successful Vietnamese-language film of all time. And it is easy to see why. Director Tran Anh Hung, making his debut here, eschews a pacy, plot-driven narrative, instead steeping the film in a slow meditative atmosphere, wrapped in buddhist metaphor.
The story largely enfolds around the life of a 10-year-old servant girl, Mui, as she calmly goes about her chores for a wealthy extended-family in Saigon in 1951, and 10 years later when she works for a different master whom she falls in love with. Despite the relative wealth of the family Mui works for, it is in a state of anguished decay. The grandmother cannot get over the death of her husband many years before, and lives upstairs in a state of near isolation. The mother is haunted by the death of a young daughter many years before, whom Mui becomes a sort of surrogate for. Frequently the father disappears for days on end to go whoring, emotionally stunting and financially crippling the family. While two young sons are traumatized by it all and resort to schoolboyish cruelty.
Despite the chaos around her, Mui brings a sense of constancy to everything within her orbit, quietly going about her business and constantly taking pleasures in the moment, and the minutiae of life, whether it is watching ants, feeding crickets water, playing with toads, letting water fall across her face or, indeed, smelling the scent of green papaya that the film’s title alludes too. It is difficult to say if there is a precise message or moral behind Mui’s calming child-presence and her ability to remain unaffected by the fraught scenes around her. The script is spare and scenes slowly play out in poetic sound and color. There is much allusion to death in the film and much to life, and things seem to gently move forward, no one particular issue fixated on, with nothing explained and everything hinted at.
This is very much a cinematographer’s film, all elegant camera-work and beautiful light, every prop beautiful and carefully chosen. Many will bristle that the entire film was shot on a soundstage in Boulogne in France, and perhaps see the film’s chocolate-boxy perfection as somehow inauthentic. This viewer, like most, is unable to know what Saigon was like in the fifties, but the light and color palette does feel very Vietnamese, as do the sights and sounds, albeit highly romanticized. Hung has created a truly beautiful corner of the world regardless, and it is surely deeply influenced by his Vietnamese childhood.
“Among the scenes when she is learning to read, Mui tells us that ‘ripe papayas are pale yellow’ (presumably in contrast to the green ones that are still ripening).”
The shift 10 years forward, about two-thirds into the film, will be bothersome for some. Suddenly Mui is a beautiful young woman in love with her new master, a talented upper-middle class musician who starts to notice her and falls in love with her himself. He, of course, teaches her to read, and this might all get a bit too “Pygmalion” for certain viewers. Nevertheless, both 10-year-old and 20-year-old Mui take a simple joy in the world, which forms the golden braid that holds everything in the film together, as do the director’s constant nods to the idea that life goes on and is all around us, in the form of chirping crickets, scrambling lizards, urinating children, papaya seeds, plants and leaves.
Among the scenes when she is learning to read, Mui tells us that “ripe papayas are pale yellow” (presumably in contrast to the green ones that are still ripening), and it is fitting that in the final scene of the film she is dressed in pale yellow herself, waxing lyrical about cherry trees, both happy and heavily pregnant, life ready to go on. For those wishing for a gentle, beautiful film, not trying to do much and thereby doing much, “Green Papaya” is a deeply sensuous visual poem which yearns to be watched.