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The Scent of Green Papaya

Directed by Tran Anh Hung. Starring Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Lu Man San, Truong Thi Lêc, Nguyen Anh Hoa, Vuong Hoa Hôi.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 6, 1994

Lush, succulent, verdant, aromatic. These are the kind of words that come to mind when describing this new Vietnamese film, a film dominated by textures rather than plot. Set in 1951 Saigon, The Scent of Green Papaya captures something of the flavor of life in Vietnam prior to its being thoroughly rent by war and revolution. Occasionally, the ominous sound of airplanes overhead is heard, but otherwise, there is a tranquillity to daily life that can only be disrupted by our intimate observation. Not much happens here in terms of story but what does occur is that the grace and beauty of a bygone era become keenly felt. Amongst the awards the film has won is the Camera d'Or for best first feature at last year's Cannes Film Festival. As the movie begins, 10-year-old Mui (Lu Man San) arrives on foot at the home of a well-to-do Saigon household where she is to work as a servant. Quiet, curious, young, and hard-working, Mui is trained in her chores by an older servant woman. The family she works for is kind and the multi-level, open-air home with its latticework windows and dividers provides an opportunity to observe its members up close. The husband/father leaves home once again, absconding with all the household money; the wife/mother silently suffers his absence, the family's impoverishment and the earlier loss of her baby daughter; the two sons both harbor streaks of cruelty; and a mourning grandmother never leaves her upstairs bedroom/prayer altar. Yet all this unhappiness is beneath the surface, hidden from direct view. Also hidden from view is the kitchen work -- women's work -- and the labor-intensive preparation of papaya which, in its unripened state, is served as a breakfast vegetable. The story picks up again 10 years later as Mui is sent away to serve in a new household, that of a single male musician and composer. A Francophile and Western-thinker, he and Mui find themselves engaged in a mutual seduction -- a symbolic merging of the old and the new. Much as Proust had his madeleine, the green papaya becomes this filmmaker's conveyance to past times and memories. Writer-director Tran Anh Hung left Vietnam with his family when he was 12 years old. Educated in France, the film was actually shot there as well, although the pre-production work was done in Vietnam and all the actors are Vietnamese. Technical insufficiencies prevented filming on Vietnamese soil. Despite the distance in time and location, The Scent of Green Papaya is ultimately as evocative as its title.
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