THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA (Mui du du xanh)
Directed by Tran Anh Hung (1993)
In Tran Anh Hung's debut film The Scent of Green Papaya, Mui (Lu Man San) is a ten-year old girl who comes from a small village to the home of a wealthy Saigon merchant to work as a servant in 1951. 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. Mui personifies the innocence of a Vietnamese society where grace and harmony has not yet given way to bombs and destruction. Mui accepts her place with patience, serving the meals, preparing the vegetables, scrubbing the floors, and polishing the shoes.
True to the Buddhist ideal of being in the present moment, Mui studiously carries out her tasks, refusing to be affected by the torments of the younger son Tin (Gerard Neth), upset over his father's desertion of the family. She observes her natural surroundings in great detail: ants carrying a small piece of bread, a frog sitting on a leaf, a cricket jumping at night, and the seeds of a green papaya. The mother (Thi Loc Truong) is distraught over the recent death of her young daughter To and looks upon Mui as her replacement, perhaps even her reincarnation. In one scene, the mother stands over Mui while she sleeps and weeps silently for the loss of her daughter and perhaps for a Vietnam that she knows will soon disappear.
Her husband (Ngoc Trun Tran) is a drinker and womanizer who has run off with the family's money. The mother is stoic and we only hear about her problems through the elderly grandmother (Thi Hai Vo) who mourns her dead husband alone in her upstairs room. The second part of the film shifts ten years into the future. Mui (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) has become a young woman. Because of the family's financial condition she has moved to the house of Khuyen, a professional musician and composer (Vuong Hoa Hoi). Her leaving triggers in the mother a profound sense of loss for her "daughter" and a sense that the old way of life in her country is coming to a permanent end.
In her new house, Mui must contend with the musician's Westernized fianc who personifies the artificiality of modern society. Annoyed with the insensitivity of his fianc, Khuyen sees Mui with fresh eyes and begins to realize how much she embodies the traditional values he has left behind. Though the film may try the patience of Western audiences, The Scent of Green Papaya, in its simplicity and awareness of the natural world, reminds us of the power of cinema to reach artistic heights.