The Scent of Green Papaya (1993)

Dir. by Tran Anh Hung

Images: Remarkably lush, sensuous images of natural world: palm fronds, ripened fruit, insects and frogs, rain. Instead of using traditional establishing shots, Tran often changes scenes by cutting to extreme close-ups that only become recognizable once the camera has pulled away. Another important visual motif is created by lateral tracking shots that follow characters from room to room, usually from a perspective outside of the building, peeking in through windows and open doorways.

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When we first meet Mui (Lu Man San), she is ten years old and a recent transplant to Saigon, where she has come, alone, to support herself as a servant. She is welcomed into a home that seems incapable of escaping its own grief: the master’s mother is reconciled to a life of solitary prayer and mourning for a husband who died decades earlier; his photo is joined on the family shrine by that of the master’s daughter, who would have been Mui’s age had she survived a childhood disease. The master and his wife (Truong Thi Loc, in the film’s finest performance) are distant, both emotionally and physically, leading to his periodic escapes with the family’s money. For Mui, life settles quickly into a domestic routine, whose rites she inherits from Thi (Nguyen Anh Hoa), the family’s older servant.

The heart of the film is Mui’s emotional development, a process mirrored by the film’s two-act structure. After the grandmother’s death, Tran cuts to a scene set within the same home a decade later. The father is now gone, one son is married, and Mui has grown into a beautiful young woman (now played by Tran Nu Yen-Khe), who remains confined to a life of servitude. When she is forced for financial reasons to leave the home, Mui is mourned by Truong, who behaves as if she were losing another daughter. It’s a touching scene: the mother hands to Mui the heirlooms that would have belonged to the young girl whom she has tragically replaced. The remainder of the film concerns Mui’s developing relationship with her new master, Khuyen (Vuong Hoa Hoi), a wealthy, young composer who spends his days at the piano.

The Scent of Green Papaya is an impressive film, one most memorable for its remarkably sensuous imagery and elegant camera work. By deliberately slowing his pace, by cross-cutting images of the natural and civilized worlds, and by scoring the film largely with the sounds of nature, Tran immerses his viewers in a cinematic Walden, a space of near Transcendental harmony. Thoreau’s fascination with the battling ants outside of his window is even reenacted by a child in Mui’s home. There is something particularly beautiful in Mui’s graceful acceptance of her lot. Even as an adult, she finds a quiet joy in communion with nature, a joy we are allowed to share with her (if only artificially) in the very act of experiencing the film.

Despite both my sincere fondness for it and my admiration for Tran’s skill, The Scent of Green Papaya strikes me as somewhat politically naïve (as does Walden, actually), particularly on two accounts. It is set in the early-1950s and 1960s, a period of French colonialism in Vietnam. Tran paints the era in nostalgic hues, though, seldom (if at all) questioning the destructive influence of Europe on native culture. Khuyen’s devotion and debt to Debussy, for instance, stands him in stark contrast to the father and brother who play traditional harmonies at the start of the film. That the father deserts his family while Khuyen acts as a Prince Charming to Mui’s Cinderella reflects a reductive privileging of Western practices.

The same could be said of Tran’s ambivalent treatment of women, who, by in large, are relegated to domestic spheres. (I’m still trying to forgive him for burdening Mui with a caged pet, which was the most hackneyed of overt symbols even when Susan Glaspell used it in Trifles eighty years ago.) Tran undoubtedly cares deeply for the women — particularly for the mother, who evidences impressive strength throughout — but he seems deliberately unwilling to allow Mui a happy ending outside of maternal bliss. In the film’s most moving sequence, we hear the adult Mui’s voice for the first time as she reads to Khuyen. It’s a moment of potential self-realization, but one that, unfortunately, appears to go unrealized. The film soon ends, and we are prevented from hearing Mui express her own thoughts in her own words through her own voice. Instead, she remains barely distinguishable from the natural world that surrounds her: an object of sensuous beauty on which we project our desires. The film actually becomes more interesting to me if I imagine Mui in twenty years, her beauty faded, her husband gone, and her spirit empowered.