Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

The Scent of Green Papaya (1993)

The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), by the Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, and the first Vietnamese film to be released in the U.S., is the cinematic equivalent of a Japanese bonsai.  Just as a bonsai tree manages to capture the beauty and depth of its real-life model on a breathtakingly reduced scale, The Scent of Green Papaya recreates in meticulous detail, on a Paris sound stage, life in a single home on the corner of a street in Saigon. This is a telescoped vision where an extreme close-up of a young boy’s hand, grazing the tears on his mother’s bare foot, becomes the essence of tragedy.

The time is 1951.  A young girl, Mui, has been sent by her parents to work as a servant in a merchant’s household in Saigon.  She is taught the necessary skills by a sympathetic older servant (Anh Hoah Nguyen).  Both the mother (Thi Loc Truong) of the household and the mother-in-law are drawn to her because she resembles the daughter they had lost a few years previously.  The household is not a tranquil one.  The husband is a gambler and a womanizer who periodically takes all of the family’s money and disappears.  The mother-in-law blames the wife for her son’s failures.  The two younger sons can make no sense of the abrupt dislocation of their lives; an older son has made his peace by moving out on his own.

Had anyone else made this movie, it might have turned out as a Balzacian tragedy or a Marxist morality play.  Balzac himself would have seen the opportunity for another Père Goriot; Marx would have reveled in another opportunity to slam capitalist callousness.  The ingredients are all there: a decadent bourgeois household, family conflict, a naive servant girl ripe for exploitation and abuse.  Surely there is an inevitability in the telling of such a story?

Hardly.   Tran Anh Hung has crafted a tale of Zen Buddhist-like calm, focus and simplicity.  Sounds (a cricket, footsteps, rain) become as important as dialogue.  I cannot think of a single other contemporary film which unfolds with such a sense of   inner peace.  “Serene” seems an impossible word for a modern critic. Even in recent films remarkable for their artistry, such as Jane Campion’s The Piano and Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern, the plot hinges on moments of intense passion and violence.   The Scent of Green Papaya offers no such catharsis, and some disgruntled critics harped on its absence.  They dismissed the film as a paean to “spirituality through servitude,” or as a male fantasy rooted in a disgraced tradition of female silence and compliance.   I prefer to celebrate this film for what it is rather than what it might have been.  In Japanese there is a common expression, Shikata ga nai, which translates loosely as  “It can’t be helped.  Oh, well.  Too bad.”  Victory through acceptance.  You can choose to lament what has been lost, or embrace what you have.  Far, far easier said than done.  Like the song says, most of us would  rather be the hammer than the nail.  That’s certainly true of most directors and the way they handle stories like this one.

Along with Hung’s unique perspective, much of the credit for the success of The Scent of Green Papaya must go to the fine performance of Lu Man San as the 10-year-old Mui.  She effortlessly negotiates her new life, learning what must be learned, endlessly fascinated by the smallest details of her surroundings, untouched by the youngest son’s petty torments or the household’s greater tragedies.  Her radiant smile never fades, and her eyes never cease to search out the miniature lives of insects, the flow of sap from a severed papaya stem, the intricate whorls of silver on a family heirloom.  This is a life where the simple act of stir-frying vegetables becomes consequential; the storms of life are as powerless against Mui as the demons were against the Buddha as he sat beneath the Tree of Enlightenment.

In a film full of such gifts, Anh Hung Tran’s last to Mui, now a radiant 20-year-old bride-to-be (Nu Yên-Khê Tran), is a spiritual one: her lover teaching her to read.


Sidebar #74e:  Looking Back & Second Thoughts

Given that cinema as an art form was invented to be shown in darkened rooms, one might think that there are a lot of films that take advantage of that darkness to tell quiet, intimate stories that gently treat the eyes and touch the heart.  Well, not so much.  Productions have always leaned much more towards Sound & Fury.  Even more so now that we’re living in the Marvel Comic Universe.

So, when finally one does come across a well-crafted film that is unabashedly quiet and intimate, one is very, very grateful.

The Scent of Green Papaya is a perfect example of such a film.  Although there’s tragedy here, there’s no fury.  The sounds are those of birds, crickets, frogs, a tiny gong, a Chopin-esque piano.  A breaking vase shatters the silence for a moment, but only for a moment.  The setting is on the smallest scale possible, compressed, as if the audience is looking into a dollhouse that’s suddenly become animated with people doing daily chores, suffering small & large wounds, falling in love and coping with loss.  The dollhouse feeling is intensified by Benoît Delhomme’s camera that seems to be perpetually looking at characters through doorways, windows, arches, screens, and railings.  This is filmmaking the way Chekhov might have approached had he been around in the 20th century, and been in an optimistic mood.

Man San Lu is perfection as the 10-year-old Mui, communicating both a beguiling charm and an inner strength.  These qualities are also embodied by Nu Yên-Khê Tran as Mui at age 20.  Tran’s smile at the close of the film is the blossoming of the spirit we saw at the beginning.  Although the occasional external sounds of aircraft are deliberate reminders of another Vietnam (the film’s timeframe extends across both the First Indochina War and the Vietnam War), director/writer Anh Hung Tran isn’t interested in scoring points by playing the heavy.  Fate is as often kind as it is cruel.

If happy endings aren’t your thing, and you’re looking for the Shadow side, you can always double bill The Scent of Green Papaya with Yimou Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern.  Songs of innocence, Songs of Experience.

Kudos to composer Tiêt Tôn-Thât for his understated score.

Benoît Delhomme has gone on to a rich career as a Director of Photography.  He was working on three films in 2020, thirty-six years after his debut short film in 1984.  Anh Hung Trans has made five films since The Scent of Green Papaya, his last in 2016.  Nu Yên-Khê Tran has made half a dozen films.  This was Ma San Lu’s only film.

NOTE:  The YouTube version of the film I’ve linked above has excellent video quality and good English subtitling.  The only glitch is that the subtitles remain on the screen until they’re replaced by new ones.  A minor fault I can live with.

Movie Information

Genre: Drama | Romance | Vietnam
Director: Anh Hung Tran
Actors: Man San Lu, Nu Yên-Khê Tran, Anh Hoah Nguyen, Thi Loc Truong, Gerard Neth
Year: 1993
Original Review: January 1998


The Unloved, Part 1: Alien 3

This series of video essays by filmmaker and blogger Scout Tafoya, published through the website, is one of my favorite film destinations on the web.  The series premiered in 2013 and as of February 3, 2020, is up to Part 74.  For each essay, Scout chooses a film that he feels have artistic merit but were received poorly at the time of their initial release.  One of the qualities that initially drew me to Roger Ebert’s writing was his passionate defence of movies he loved, and his willingness to acknowledge interesting elements in some films he chose not to rate so highly.  Scout shares Roger’s upbeat approach, and at least once a week I dip into his archives to listen and watch which critically orphaned picture he’s chosen for redemption.  I don’t always agree with him, but I never feel like I’ve wasted the 8 to 10 minutes he’s taken to make his case.  Each essay is lovingly crafted, with excerpts from the film in question, from related films, and from the world of art                 & literature.  Some other early choices included John Carter of Mars, The Hudsucker Proxy, Tron: Legacy, Ishtar, and Sorcerer.


Fandor for Movie Lovers

This is an affordable ($5,99 a month or $49.99 a year) streaming service that gives you access some 4000 independent, foreign, documentary, and classic movies from around the world.  A 14-day free trial is offered.

Sundance Now

Another affordable ($4,99 a month) streaming service.  In the site’s own words: “We are more than just a streaming service. We celebrate the power of storytelling, and are committed to authentic, emotionally moving stories told from unexpected global perspectives. Stream a gripping and rich selection of true crime, fiercely intelligent thrillers, and heart-stopping dramatic series from around the world.”

Films Worth Talking About:

Schindler’s List, El Mariachi, Groundhog Day, Point of No Return, Falling Down, La Scorta (The Escort), Much Ado About Nothing, The Piano, Farewell My Concubine, Jurassic Park, Cliffhanger, Like Water for Chocolate, In the Line of Fire, Sleepless in Seattle, The Joy Luck Club, Short Cuts, Three Colors Blue, The Age of Innocence, Germinal, A Bronx Tale, Demolition Man, The Remains of the Day, Philadelphia, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Tombstone, Kalifornia, Cronos, Cool Runnings, Sonatine, Naked, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Mrs. Doubtfire, Menace II Society, Les Visiteurs, Raining Stones, The Blue Kite, Benny & Joon, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Little Buddha

The Bigger Picture

FilmsSpring, Summer,Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003); Indochine (1992; Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Music:  Chopin, Nocturnes, Études


The Word on the Street

The first Vietnamese film ever nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film, Scent of Green Papaya captures the natural beauty of pre-war Vietnam, even though it was filmed on a set constructed in a Paris studio.  [howard.schumann]

This is a kind of Cinderella tale set in Saigon during the 1950s in which the yin and yang principles of the masculine element and the feminine are acted out. We find ourselves in the airy, beautifully-appointed house of a well-to-do merchant family that has just hired a new servant. She is ten-year-old Mùi, played with grace and a kind of magical innocence by Man San Lu, who bestows her beatific little smile on all the little wonders of the world she sees around her. She learns her job quickly and works hard, always with a positive attitude. She loves all living things including insects and frogs. She tolerates the boorish behavior of the youngest son of the household who directs some indelicate gestures in her direction. Like a Taoist monk she just observes, judges not and says nothing.  [DeeNine-2]

One of the purest films ever made, this movie captures a sense of utter peace and spirituality, drawn from the main character’s constant sense of wonder, awareness of her surroundings, and the pleasure she is able to take in simple daily tasks. It is also an expression of the true nature of the medium, since there is no forced tension or plot points, and the camera explores its world in perfect freedom, and with perfect curiosity (to suit the main character, who is filled with curiosity for the world around her, often taking time to simply stare at the objects around her, as an ideal camera should).  [squarest4]

I am a big fan of movies with the story line SIMILAR to this one, my fave are Em be Ha Noi (The little girl of Hanoi), Doi Cat (Sandy Lives), Bao gio cho den thang muoi (When the tenth month comes)… Check them out if you really want to see a REAL Vietnamese movie.
Being a 100% Vietnamese (born & raised in Vietnam), I have to say that this movie has so many li’l details that do not represent Vietnam at all. If you’ve ever lived in VN, you probably know what I mean.  [doanngocahn01]

An interesting use of mis-en-scene is paralleled between Mui and the insects she feeds inside the cage. Mui, an entrapped servant inside her own cage called “home”, feeds a cluster of crickets entrapped inside their cage in order to sustain their lives. It is a reflection of her own nourishing she receives from the masters inside the cage she lives in. It is her way of giving back to nature what nature has given to her. A tender scene is shown between the friendship of Mui and her crickets when she is told she will be leaving to serve in another home. As she opens the door to the cage to let the crickets go free, they cling to its surface—unwilling to move. That the crickets are scared to break free and venture outside beyond the confines of their cage is a reflection of Mui’s life to venture beyond the home (cage) she was essentially raised in. The community, then, is shown as being one that represents the effects of being institutionalized over a given period of time. The characters in the story, whether human or insect, are ones that adapt to their environment quickly and make the best of their given situation.  [gentendo]

I enjoyed the interactions between the principal character of the movie and the “little sh*t”. Everyone knows the world over that little boys are “little sh*ts”, and little girls are the ones who do all the work. [ratherbebocce]

What makes the movie really attractive is the whats in the background- the audio and the visuals. Its feels like walking through a Vietnamese museum. I loved the slow languid mellow tones. The roundness of the ceramic pottery, blackness of long strands of hair, chirping of crickets, warmth of wood, ornate carvings, slowness of movement – it all melds in really well. It creates the effect of being in some scented magical tropical garden where there is an occasional cool breeze. It’s a very sensuous movie – without having to resort to sexuality for displaying sensuousness.   [lyrxsf]