Mui du du xanh

(The Scent of Green Papaya, France/Vietnam - 1993)

by Vanes Naldi
5/3/02 (7/11/01)

Cast: Tran Nu Yen Khe, Man San Lu, Thi Loc Truong, Anh Hoa Nguyen, Hoa Hoi Vuong, Ngoc Trung Tran
Genre: Expressionist/Drama
Director: Tran Ahn Hung
Screenplay: Patricia Petit & Ahn Hung Tran
Cinematography: Benoit Delhomme & Laurence Tremolet
Composer: Ton-That Tiet
Runtime: 104 minutes

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Tran Anh Hung's Camera D'Or and César winning (best new director) art piece is where it was shot. Hung has been living in France since 1975, and he wanted to recapture the magic, the tranquillity of the world he used to live in when he was young during the French occupation. It is a great homage to the Vietnam that has now disappeared thanks to the horrible mistake known as the Vietnam war and globalization slowly "assimilating" every culture to make everything become one and let the most beautiful thing on earth, difference, disappear. For this reason as well as budgetary limitations, he chose to reproduce to perfection what he wanted in a studio outside Paris rather than on location in his native country.

Tran could have gone on a political rant about how the western world has changed Vietnam to a point of no return. Their traditions and customs have basically been lost, and the simple beauty of life's repetitive circle that could be so fascinating no longer exists because influences from other cultures changed it. Many other directors tried to do this, but it was mostly a cry against the war, condemning it, America or both. Few have considered what happened to Vietnam, and this is a tribute to the old Vietnam, the one we will never see anymore. There are almost no political themes in this film; the only "wink" Hung uses is the noise of airplane's dominating the scene every now and then. There's also the city girl in the second part disrupting the quiet life of the composer, but that could happen anywhere even without the war or the globalization. The film is about a lost tradition; it's about the simplicity of life and Vietnam's repetitive but beautiful ancient rites.

The film starts in 1951, just during the French occupation. Mui, a 10-year-old villager (Man San Lu), leaves her family to go serve as a maid in a rich household, a seemingly happy but in reality dysfunctional family destroyed by grief. She's oblivious to the pain and suffering the Mistress (Thi Loc Truong) and Master (Ngoc Trung Tran) have to endure. Instead, she's fascinated by nature's simple inhabitants: a lonely frog imposing itself through the leaves, a group of ants frantically working around a small piece of bread, a cricket jumping in the night, water falling down the trees, and the scent of green papaya.

The mistress treats Mui differently from the beginning, seeing her more as a daughter than a servant. She lost her own daughter a few years back, when the Master went on a binge with all the household money, resulting in his daughter dying before he came back. From that moment, the couple couldn't cope with their suffering. The Master swore to stop drinking and never leave the house again, constantly playing instruments to forget. What we always hear is the echo of that sound that permeates the scene. There's also the grandmother (Thi Hai Vo), who lives a life of solitude remembering her departed husband, rhythmically hitting cowbells all day. The Mistress has three sons, who from the first moment start using Mui for their jokes and games (including the youngest son's fascination with flatulence). In a world of suffering, Mui enlightens everybody else's life and gives new hope to the Mistress. She will never have her daughter back, but she can experience some of the same feelings toward Mui, and at least find consolation in her faithful obedience and constant happiness and simplicity.

The first part of the film focuses on the recreation of this ambient of Hung's childhood. We see Mui learn how to become a perfect maid, how she learns the traditions like cutting the papaya, and the scent and noise it makes. We also see a visually amazing reproduction of the household, and the great integration with nature those places had: we see animals everywhere, from little bugs to ants, frogs, and crickets. There's a stunning environmental background made by animal noises, visually enhanced by the plants, trees, and colors. This film would be the perfect background for a yoga session; it's so calm, so relaxing, yet so smartly represented.

Mui starts getting accustomed to the family and develops admiration for a son of a family friend, Khuyen (Hao Hoi Vuong), who used to come and play with the sons. He fascinates her, but we don't know what will happen yet because Mui is so naive, so beautifully innocent that everything seems interesting. This curiosity will continue to show up in the second part.

In 1961, ten years after the master's death, Mui is now a 20-year-old (and played by the directors wife Tran Nu Yen Khe) and the household is in financial trouble. Mui has to leave to work for Khuyen, the young boy she was fascinated with. She's become a beautiful young woman, but still showcases the same youthful curiosity, the same will to explore, to see how simple and beautiful life can be. As a last gift before leaving, the Mistress gives Mui a dress that her daughter was supposed to receive, but all those years of relationship with Mui generated a strong bond between them, like mother and daughter. It's tough for Mui to leave, and the Mistress is as devastated as when she lost her daughter, but also happy because finally Mui has become a woman and can move on with life.

The second part features more plot than the first one, and for this reason, some people disliked it. It was clear from the first moment Mui saw Khuyen that something between them happened. The way the film builds up to the ending, keeps putting obstacles in between them, and finally the way it climaxes makes it worth the wait. The change in style from simple observation and recreation of an ambient to something more plot-driven (but still incredibly beautiful, and non-conventional, since the last 30+ minutes feature more or less 4-5 sentences of dialogue) makes sense to me. The relationship between Khuyen and Mui is a difficult one for many reasons including the social obstacles and Khuyen's annoying "city girl" who keeps trying to take him out of his concentration. Mui slowly gets accustomed to the man's company, to his beautiful music, and Khuyen does the same. They grow together and are now lost. I find that the constant attempt to find a plot, to see how the story moves in every single film is pathetic. The reason I prefer Asian cinema is because we finally realize the truth, especially for Khuyen. The love he was waiting for, the right person he was searching was right in front of him. Even if he had to do something that was socially "unacceptable," living with a servant, and even if he didn't want to realize the truth, at the end everything climaxes in the perfect way with Khuyen teaching Mui how to read in a beautiful, almost poetic ending scene.

I'm disappointed that so many western film fans can't be interested in a different way of filmmaking with different ideas and focus. A marvelous film such as this gets cast off as "boring," uninvolving, or maybe even mediocre just because there's no plot or the viewers can't interest themselves in the characters and what they do. This is a style that focuses on amazing visual realism, great ambience, great sounds, and great background. The message it's trying to portray is one of tranquillity; it's trying to show the dying art of tradition and the small touches and moments of life that often get ignored. This type of film is able to tell more with images than words, with symbols than with manipulative plots, with sounds and colors than with action.

This film perfectly achieves its goal, as a eulogy to a lost world, to an almost lost tradition. The film features fantastic cinematography by Mike Figgis & Benoit Jacquot favorite Benoit Delhomme that makes the plants seem like they are really in your house. However, it is not just visually stunning with an amazing use of color and sound and great scenarios (we never really get affected by the fact it's a studio, we never notice it because the film is so involving already); it also perfectly conveys emotions. In the first part words are rarely used, almost treasured, while second part we rarely hear a word, but characters only speak when they really need to as a way to show the tranquility of the life and not distract us from the fact that the recreated environment is telling the story instead.

While the acting is strong, some people dismissed it because it wasn't the "conventional" way of acting. This film is in a way like what Lars Von Trier is trying to achieve with Dogme '95, to strip film of any outside tricks or embellishing bullshit. While Hung doesn't "have to" adhere to the 10 jokey rules of the "Vow of Chastity," his message comes off as strong as Dogme directors. The acting follows the same path as those, helping convey the message with realism and spontaneity rather than fabricated emotion. The real standout is Man San Lu, who has a light in her eyes, shining trough the whole film. She makes every scene she's in memorable, for her interest in small, seemingly "unimportant" things like ants walking down a line, the simple movements of life.

This film is like a poem, a beautiful picture, or a moving piece of music. It shows the beauty of nature, makes you experience things like water dripping down a plant leaf in a way that's so heightened and beautiful it almost seems to good for you to have never noticed it before. Meanwhile, it depicts the customs and simple repetitive traditions of a country. In the end, it's all about the experience, the sounds, the images, and the colors of that Vietnam.

Vietnam rightfully decided to present this as a choice for the Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards (the first and only Vietnamese film they ever nominated) because it's a piece of history, a piece of tradition that otherwise would be forgotten. If you're ready to watch a film that is extremely slow moving, features little or nothing in the way of plot, dialogue and action, this will reward you extremely. It's almost hypnotic, incredibly relaxing, it is like a visual poem. It's art.



* Copyright 2002 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *