I find it interesting that so far almost half of our movies have been Asian, and here is yet another, this one from Vietnam. The Scent of Green Papaya takes place in Saigon in 1951, which means that the First Indochina War is taking place, but that does not play a part in the movie at all. It is the story of a 10 year old girl, Mui, who has just been hired to work in the home of a middle class family. The family consists of the parents, the father's mother, and their three sons. The mother's shop where she sells fabric and sewing notions is in the front of the house.
This is not a story of the miserable life of a child who is forced into hard labor in an unkind family. Mui has to work hard, but she is treated well and her work is not too much for her to bear. The older servant who works with her is a good woman, and the mother of the family, who has lost a daughter who would have been just Mui's age, is very kind, indeed, she loves Mui, although not in a demonstrative way.
The family is not a happy family, each member seems to be caught in his own little web of sorrow. The father, while physically present, lives in a sort of invisible isolation booth. He sits and plays music and barely responds to his wife's comments and conversation. The oldest son, who is in his late teens, is seldom home. The middle son is very angry, and torments small things. The youngest son, who is about 5, torments Mui with cruel pranks. The grandmother lives upstairs and spends her days alone in prayer, mourning her husband and granddaughter. The mother is the sole provider for the family, and she works hard for them while mourning the death of her daughter, and coping with her husband's occasional disappearances.
In contrast, Mui is that very rare person who is completely content with her own life, and who lives in constant awareness of the beauty that surrounds her. She gazes in rapt attention at the life that unfolds before her, and the viewer becomes a party to her vision.
Here we pause a moment and contemplate the way the milky liquid of the green papaya drips onto its leaves . . .
and marvel at the little treasure chest they secret inside themselves,
or we look out the window in the morning and anticipate the new day.
I love this scene. Can't you just see the anticipation in Mui's back?
Mui's innocence is tangible, especially in contrast with a certain lack of that innocence in even the youngest member of the family. The film also retains a certain aura of innocence even though the characters may not. I'm sure that I am not the only viewer who became a bit nervous when Mr. Thuan came on the scene.
We are so jaded that even the most blameless encounters can seem suspicious, but there is nothing to worry about here. Mr. Thuan's interest is born in his love and concern for the grandmother of the family, and he and Mui become fast friends.
This movie, which won the Caméra d'or (Golden Camera) award at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, is, as you can see, very beautiful, and would be worth seeing for that alone. It is, at least in the first long part of the movie, a very muted beauty filled with greens and browns.
We look through many beautifully fretted windows and walls. The family's house is filled with a variety of wood hues. I was struck, as I was in Pather Panchali, by how much of Mui's life is lived outside, and the house has a feeling of being drawn from the elements of nature. The sense of being surrounded by the natural world is also enhanced by the constant songs, cries, and chirping of birds, and insects.
The second, and much shorter part of The Scent of Green Papaya, takes place 10 years later, when the family, due to difficult financial times, can no longer afford to employ Mui. They find her a job,a better job, with a young man with whom the viewer knows, Mui has been infatuated for years. At this point, the film becomes filled with color.
I find that many of these newer Asian films, both regular films and some of the graphic films of Studio Ghibli, are filled with a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty around us—both the beauty of the natural world, and that of man's creation. The filmmakers are not afraid to take their time and move slowly through the story, giving us time to soak in the beauty that we see, and by contrast really highlight the crassness and emptiness of so many American films.
The Scent of Green Papaya can be found on YouTube, or streamed from Amazon, or you can get the DVD from Netflix. I am seriously considering buying the DVD.
—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.