Director Tran Anh Hung once said that: “Vietnam in the movies has meant images of war. For years now, violence has masked the humanity of my people.” His 1993 feature debut The Scent of Green Papaya distanced Vietnam from the type of Oliver Stone and Apocalypse Now representations and returned it to an apparently long forgotten romanticism. In doing so, Tran also evoked the images and memories of his own childhood. Though born in Vietnam, he grew up in France. In fact, The Scent of Green Papaya was shot entirely on soundstages in Paris.
The film is set in Saigon in 1951. The central character is a ten-year-old servant girl named Mui (Lu Man San), who spends ten years as a maid in the household of wealthy Vietnamese merchants. She grows up into womanhood and eventually, adult Mui (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) is sent to live with a French-educated bachelor musician named Khuyen (Vuong Hoa Hoi). The two will end up falling in love.
The story is made up of intimate moments rather than important ones. As such, The Scent of Green Papaya does not rely on the usual traditionalist three-act structure. It is also mostly seen through the gaze of its central character; it is her intellectual growth that we experience through her relationship with the people, animals, and objects all around her.
Tran’s film moves at a hypnotic slow pace; this type of rhythm is often accosted to a Buddhist zen. Indeed, time is quite important in Tran’s film. Structurally, the film shows no reservations for leaving an unwarranted ten-year-gap. Narratively, time is simply perceived differently by the characters in the film. The most touching example arguably comes from an old man, who was once rejected by the woman he loved; many years later, he is still, in a Kierkegaardian fashion, truly content to simply catch a passing glimpse of her.
The Scent of Green Papaya is a film of rich textures and colour palette. Sounds and music contribute greatly to the construction of a placid and dreamy atmopshere – Roger Ebert once described watching this film as “listening to soothing music.” However, Tran’s film does not stop at a superficial formal level; we learn much about the post-colonialist class structure of Vietnamese society, particularly on the treatment of women in its patriarchal society. For instance, the patriarch of the wealthy household seems lazy and self-absorbed. He eventually leaves with the family savings. Despite supporting her family through this difficult situation by running a little shop, it is his wife who is blamed for her failure to look after her husband properly.
Though the war remains distant, occasionally heard for example, through the sounds of distant helicopters muffled within the soundscape, neo-colonialism is integrated into The Scent of the Green Papaya in a widely optimistic way. Khuyen plays the music of European composers and seems to have no qualms about treating his beautiful maid as his equal, thus hinting at the end of class divisions. Their love, in the end, stands as the symbol of a mindset that is ready to evolve; in this framework, Mui’s final pregnancy is an ultimate sign of optimism. Despite the fact that we know that a violent and controversial war is just around the corner and will inevitably affect Vietnam for the worse, there is great humanity to be found in Tran’s impressionistic and personal film based, as mentioned, on the recollections of a time he remembers fondly: “If I’ve every experienced harmony in my life, it was then.” – ★★★★★
MÙI DU DU XANH || 1993, France / Vietnam || Directed by – Tran Anh Hung / Produced by – Christophe Rossignon / Written by – Tran Anh Hung / Music by – Ton-That Tiet / Cinematography – Benoit Delhomme / Edited by – Nicole Dedieu, Jean-Pierre Roques / Starring – Lu Man San, Tran Nu Yen-Khe, Vuong Hoa Hoi / Running time: 104 mins.