“Whether it looks nice or not, we eat it.”
The Scent of Green Papaya was the first film of director Tran Anh Hung. The film is set in Vietnam and has an authentic feel to it, but shooting was apparently done entirely on sound stages in Paris. Released in 1993, the film received a fair amount of acclaim internationally, being an award winner at the Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award nominee in the Best Foreign Language category.
Columbia has now released the film on DVD in an edition that does not quite measure up to Columbia’s usual high standards.
In 1951, Mui, a young girl from a village in the Vietnam countryside, comes to Saigon to work as a servant in the home of a moderately well-to-do family. The life that the family seems to lead is soon revealed to be comfortable on the surface only. The grandmother stays permanently in her room on the upper level of the home, mourning the death of her husband many years ago when the two were first married. There is marital discord as well, and the husband of the mistress of the house disappears one day with all the family’s savings. Eventually he returns, but dies soon afterward.
For ten years, the family struggles. The grandmother dies, to be replaced in her room by the mistress of the house. The new mistress of the house is the wife of one of the old mistress’s sons. Due to the family’s financial difficulties, Mui has to be let go and she takes on a job as a servant to a young man who was a friend of her old mistress’s eldest son. The young man is a pianist with whom Mui soon falls in love.
As already mentioned, The Scent of Green Papaya received a fair measure of acclaim when it first appeared nine years ago. One can see where that recognition stems from. The film is a beautifully photographed ode to the life of a simple servant girl — one in which the camera lingers lovingly on the faces of people and the pleasures of nature that surround them. At a time when we are bombarded with films that are often assaults on our senses and edited for viewers with the attention span of a gnat, this film appears to come as a welcome relief.
I say “appears” because the promise of the film’s first half is never fulfilled, and we are ultimately left unsatisfied. In that first half, we are presented with a wonderful portrait of life in a moderately well-to-do Saigon family at mid-century. All that transpires is seen through the eyes of Mui, the innocent, uneducated young girl who comes from a village in the country to be a servant in the family home. Mui delights in the pleasures of her tasks, from preparing meals to cleaning, all the time transfixed by the simple beauty of the plants, animals and insects that surround the home. In the midst of this simple existence, however, she is aware that all is not well with the family, as lost love and marital discord seem to constantly intrude. Thus a very interesting and somewhat mysterious background is gradually introduced, and we settle back eager to see this developed more fully and find out how it will eventually shape Mui’s life.
We wait in vain. We never learn the nature of the family’s marital problems; we never learn of the grandmother’s ultimate fate, nor of a potential elderly suitor who has been interested in her for years; and we never really understand what happened to the mistress’s husband. The story suddenly jumps forward ten years and we are treated to a rather banal love triangle that resolves itself predictably.
Director Tran Anh Hung is Vietnamese born, but works mainly in France. He has a good eye for film composition and camera placement, but the deficiencies of the script (on which he collaborated) eventually overpower those positives. Tran seems to have developed a good rapport with the actors in this film and their work is very natural and relaxed. Among the almost entirely Vietnamese cast, Man San Lu as the young Mui and Thi Loc Truong as the mistress of the house are particularly memorable.
I think Columbia must have been affected by the languidness of the film when it prepared its DVD transfer. The results are uneven. The picture is presented full frame in accord with its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and utilizes 28 scene selections. At times, the image is stunningly clear and detailed. At others, it’s soft and noisy. Some of the night-time scenes exhibit considerable grain and poor shadow detail. Colours on the whole are bright and faithfully rendered.
A Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround audio track in Vietnamese is provided with English subtitles. Most of the sound is confined to the fronts, with only occasional subtle use of the rears. The dialogue sounds clear and fairly rich. The piano pieces during the film’s second half sound a little thin even though they serve more as background than anything else. (Admittedly this may have been the director’s intent).
The DVD’s only supplements are three trailers — for The Scent of Green Papaya, The Vertical Ray of the Sun (another equally lethargic Tran Anh Hung film), and Farinelli.
While I wanted to like The Scent of Green Papaya and found its opening half quite enchanting, the film is let down by a script that ultimately fails to deliver on its initial promise. Fine cinematography and thoughtful film composition will only take you so far and 104 minutes of them without resolving at least some of the issues raised in the plot is too much. Columbia doesn’t really do much to enhance the experience for us with its DVD either. The transfer is not quite up to its usual high standard and the supplements are meager indeed.