'The Scent of Green Papaya': Film Review

Directed by: Tran Ang Hung, Runtime:104 minutes
Grade: B+

As an artistic medium, film typically communicates in two ways: through narrative, and through sensory reaction. Most movies spin stories and expand on characters, yet others -- notably the works of Nicholas Roeg (Walkabout) and Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven) -- rely on organic artistic flourishes to navigate tone, creating intuitive aural and visual poems intended for feeling instead of word-created depth. Like the harshness Roeg frames in the outback and Malick's fertile yet bleak splendor in rolling fields, Vietnam's Oscar-nominated The Scent of Green Papaya shifts its glances between emerald-hued plants and earthy textures to capture the life of a young servant girl in early-50s Saigon. It allows the atmosphere's lush radiance to guide the film's tone in place of a deeply-layered tale, which encapsulates a pure slice of class-based life in a moody, stimulating light.

Director Tran Ang Hung starts by secretly following the focal young girl, Mui (Man San Lu), as she weaves through the dark, peaceful alleys of a populated corner of Vietnam, where she's lugging her belongings to her new position as an odd-and-end servant for a wealthy two-child family. Once there, she's welcomed with open arms; she learns how to stir-fry food from the elder servant, picks up on why the family's quiet grandmother always stays in her room, and deals with the mischievous shenanigans of the youngest troublemaking son. Soon, she becomes an integral part of their dynamic, showing how she elevates her status to something between an employee and a member of their family -- having conversations with the neighbors about the grandmother's reclusion, learning how to stretch out their food in leaner times, and enduring the heartache that befalls their storied life.

The Scent of Green Papaya maintains delicate realism as the camera captures things like food sizzling in pans, creamy secretions dropping on leaves, and aged photographs draped in candlelight. French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme -- more recently known for his work with Mikael Håfström and in John Hillcoat's gritty western The Proposition -- steeps Tran Anh Hung's quiet poetic imagery in earthy intimacy, switching from immersion to meaningfulness in the jumps between young Mui and the eldest son. There's a concurrent scene that's stunning: Mui gleefully glances at an ant crawling over dust and debris while they eat, while the elder son drips candle wax on other ants and crushes them with a fingernail. Some might see symbolism over which one respects life and doesn't, but that'd suggest force behind the director's intentions that doesn't befit its free-flowing nature. The director offers the beautiful images, perhaps hinting at a need for the boy to act out, and simply lets them wash over us. And it's beautiful in its meaningful simplicity.

The story that supports the involving aesthetic mood, however, can best be described as a tender and toned-down melodrama that, in actuality, is supported by the visual mood more than the other way around. It tracks the mental strife that accompanies the death of a family member, highlighting the shifting emotional fabric in the house as their mental and financial stability shifts. Tran Anh Hung emphasizes the stirring pain that fills the open-aired home at several moments, then the emotional exhale that follows, insistently framing the body language and facial reactions of the family members against the fertile life that cradles the Vietnamese home. In this breezy atmosphere, their cohabitation reflects on the bonds built when human nature allows, even with a bratty little boy maliciously back-tracking the servant's work with nagging antics. That's not to say that The Scent of Green Papaya leans on dramatic indulgence, though; the skill present in the restrained direction keeps that from happening.

At least, all that I've said to this point covers the first half of The Scent of Green Papaya, as the story vaults ahead nearly a decade to when Mui's a grown (and strikingly beautiful) woman. Everything that gave luster to the chronicling of the young servant's life continues, yet the location and circumstances change and, in the process, some of the inherent dramatic beauty doesn't follow. Mui eventually leaves to serve a concert pianist whom she met (and, with twinkling eyes, adored) at a young age, where she cooks and cleans in a ritzier closed-in location, all under the watchful eye of the man and his fiancé. As she gingerly arranges plates of food she's carefully prepared and watches the man she once had a crush on, the film develops a noticeably different, adult posture. Luckily, Tran Nu Yên-Khê (also Tran Anh Hung's wife) enchants with her radiant beauty and a magnetic mix of innocence and maturity, a deceptively simple performance which reminds that it's the same girl as before, only with years under her belt.

See, but that's the unfortunate pitfall to a story like The Scent of Green Papaya: it slipstreams restrained dramatic moments between the impeccable natural photography, yet the underwritten characters ultimately cannot prop up the weight of bigger dramatic moments. The last leg of the picture serves as something of a cathartic full-circle pivot for Mui, showing how the young girl who gobbled on food from her rice bowl and cared for crickets becomes a full-fledged woman in the midst of a man she's attracted to, and the picture ends on a somewhat brusque, forced emotional note that undermines the eloquent path of growth Tran Anh Hung had paved beforehand. But even in its more uncertain moments, there's still a whirlwind of beauty to fixate on and get emotionally caught up in, such as simple shots of the now-grown woman applying lipstick while in a bright-red dress given to her by someone special. These moments, well-framed and reflective on the path that the girl's traversed, still seduce our responses up until the end.

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