(Mui Du Du Xanh; The Scent of Green Papaya)
Director: Tran Anh Hung
Production: Les Productions Lazannec, Paris, in co-production with LA SFP Cinéma, La Sept Cinéma, Canal Plus, Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie; colour, 35mm; running time: 104 minutes. Filmed entirely on two sound stages outside Paris, at the studios of Société Francaise de Production.
Producer: Christophe Rossignon; screenplay: Tran Anh Hung; photography: Benoit Delhomme; editor: Nicole Dedieu, Jean-Pierre Roques; assistant director: Nicolas Cambois; music: Tiet Ton-That; sound recording: Michel Guiffan; costumes: Jean-Phillipe Abril.
Cast: Tran Nu Yên-Khê ( Mui, age 20 ); Lu Man San ( Mui, age 10 ); Truong Thi Loc ( Mother ); Nguyen Anh Hoa ( Old Thi ); Vuong Hoa Hoi ( Khuyen ); Ngoc Trung Tran ( Father ); Vantha Talisman ( Thu ); Keo Souvannavong ( Trung ).
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* * *
In a lushly visual and lyrical style, L'odeur de la papaye verte (The Scent of Green Papaya) tells the story of Mui, a 12-year-old servant girl (Lu Man San) who comes to work in a well-to-do Saigon household in the 1950s. The gentle, modest child accepts her fate and dutifully learns her tasks, even while being taunted by the younger son. But young French Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung, who directed from his own script, makes clear that Mui is not a mere drudge. With her lively, inquisitive eyes and her sense of wonder at the limited world around her, Lu projects sensitivity and scope.
But all is not well in the seemingly tranquil household. Although the mother, played with great dignity and grace by Troung Thi Loc, tries bravely to hold the family together, earning their income by running a fabric shop adjoining the house, her profligate husband is usually absent. He returns now and then only to make off with the savings. The two sons feel the tension, with the younger one acting out his frustrations on Mui. "I didn't want to do a documentary-style film about Vietnam," the director says, "but I wanted to show a mental landscape. I wanted to create film based on the life experience of my mother. There's a certain gentleness I wanted to recreate. I wanted to show how the servitude of women transforms itself into a form of self-sacrifice."
Ten years later, the family falls on hard times. The mistress tearfully sends Mui (now played by Tran Nu Yên-Khê) away to look after Khuyen (Vuong Hoa Hoi), a dashing young music composer recently back from his European studies. He is engaged to an equally Westernized young Vietnamese woman, but with her mercurial temper, her wild laugh, and her stiletto pumps, perhaps she is too challenging for him, too free. He finds his attention diverting more and more to the sweetly innocent and more traditionally feminine Mui.
Tran cautions against seeing the film as a mere fairy tale, where the East triumphs over the West. For him, the ending is far more ambiguous and unsettling than that. "There's a moment that is at once the most terrible and the most beautiful in a woman's life," he noted. "It's that moment when she falls in love and servitude becomes a pleasure. Love delivers woman from servitude, but at the same time reinforces servitude."
Much of the film's power derives from its visual expressiveness. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme captures long and loving takes of the faces of characters (all wonderfully cast), of the open architecture of the traditional-style Vietnamese domicile, of the lush green foliage and the insects abounding in the garden. There is a fascination with food and food preparation—done in a minimal outdoor kitchen, with the old housekeeper (Nguyen Anh Hoa) teaching Mui how to cook and Mui watching intently, from the time she comes to the household as a young girl to the time she begins to become a woman.
We are treated to a scene of how the famous Vietnamese green papaya salad is made—the fruit is peeled, the tender meat is hacked, then sliced off into julienned strips. The scene ends with Mui cutting the remaining fruit in half and coming upon, with wonderment and delight, the pearly black seeds nestled within the center. As she presses her small finger into the nest of seeds to touch them, to stir them, the scene becomes sensual. And indeed, the air of this film is dense with sweet sensuality, both repressed and softly expressed. While dialogue is sparse, even terse, the storytelling is nevertheless superb, with Tran, who wrote the script, showing sympathetic insight into all the characters.
Tran Ang Hung left Vietnam at age 11 with his family in 1975, just before the fall of Saigon to Communist forces. Resettling in France, he eventually went on to study film at the Ecole Louis Lumière, but he deliberately failed to get his diploma. "If I had graduated," he explains, "I would have been tempted to go into television, where I could have made a lot of money. Instead, I went to work in a bookstore for a living and ended up writing five scripts."
While at the school, Tran made two short films, La femme mariée de Nam Xuong and La Pierre de l'Attente , which were based on Vietnamese folk tales. With the collaboration of Christophe Rossignon, who found the money, Tran was able to make The Scent of Green Papaya , his first feature. At first they went to Vietnam to make the film but were stopped by the rainy season. Later a co-production offer from Société Française de Production persuaded them to shoot in France, so in fact the film was shot in its entirety on two studios outside Paris.
To ensure authenticity, they gathered old photographs of Vietnamese households and village streets and carefully researched the plants and insects of the region. Tran called upon family members to help out—his mother made all the food seen in the film, his father, a tailor, made all the costumes—and, last but not least, Tran's wife played the key part of the older Mui. In fact, all the roles were filled by amateurs found in a wide-ranging talent search throughout France. The one exception was Nguyen Anh Hoa, a professional actress who played the older servant and was found in Vietnam.
In 1993 The Scent of Green Papaya proved another unexpected hit for Asian filmmakers. At the Cannes Film Festival, the film was selected for the Un Certain Regard program, then won the prestigious Camera d'Or for best feature by a first-time director. Later Tran picked up the French film industry's Cesar award for the same category. In 1994 the film garnered a best foreign language film nomination from the American Academy Awards, along with Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Ang Lee's Wedding Banquet . None of the Asian films took home the prize, but Tran says with great ease, "I was happy to be nominated. I was happy to have a chance to go to the awards ceremony and meet others in the field." The film has been released widely in Europe, in nearly 60 U.S. cities, and in many Asian countries. In 1994 it was also featured at both the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Singapore International Film Festival.
Having been raised in two different cultures, Tran certainly realizes that he is caught between East and West, rather like the composer in his film. "It's complicated—I couldn't say everything in the film [ Green Papaya ]. Of course, there are certain contradictions in myself . . . But it's not disagreeable—it's rather interesting actually."