Vietnam's nascent film industry does not yet command the world's attention, but in this country an amazing first feature by 32-year-old Tran Anh Hung may catch the eye of Oliver North as well as that of Oliver Stone. The Scent of Green Papaya has already won the Camera d'Or prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, and it's the first Vietnamese film ever nominated for an Academy Award. Some Hollywood insiders consider it a lock as Best Foreign Film on Oscar night.
What's the excitement all about? You may be surprised to learn that there's not a single war scene or even a distant explosion in Green Papaya, and there's very little dialogue. In fact, the entire film, which chronicles the growing up and eventual small triumph of Mui, a servant girl from the country, takes place in the hushed confines of two bourgeois households in Saigon, in 1951 and 1961. There, domestic life progresses as quietly and inexorably as the cycle of nature itself. The film's events--a grandmother praying before a shrine to her ancestors, an impish little boy urinating in a vase, a wayward husband vanishing with the family savings, a young Asian composer becoming ever more infatuated with Western music--at first seem so mundane and ordinary as to not bear much weight at all. But in detailing the commonplaces of everyday life, and the ways they are observed by the heroine, Tran paints a vivid and densely layered portrait of Vietnamese society--its sense of beauty and its class tensions, the oblique angles taken by its coy romantics and the patience of its dreamers. In passing, we also learn what Vietnamese families eat for dinner, the kinds of frogs perched on the sensuous green leaves in their gardens, the songs of the birds in their trees.
Because of huge production obstacles in Vietnam, Green Papaya was actually filmed in Paris. Maybe that's why memory and observation collide with such Proustian seamlessness here, and very slowly we realize what an astonishing feat Tran has brought off. It looms even more impressive once we know how inexperienced this filmmaker is, and how early he was detached from his roots.
Born in Vietnam in 1962, Tran moved to Paris with his family in 1975, studied cinematography at that city's Ecole Lumiere and found himself immersed in European cultural history. But he never forgot the old country. His two short films, The Married Woman of Nam Xuong and The Stone of Waiting, have been shown only sparsely in the United States, but that hardly matters. This is the first major work of a writer/director with a shining future, perhaps the leading edge of a whole new kind of Asian filmmaking.
Mui, Green Papaya's waif, is played at age ten by Lu Man San, a lovely little girl through whose liquid eyes we see the machinations of the household into which fate has cast her. As the title suggests, the papaya she learns to cut and prepare for the commercial, middle-class family that employs her is her madeleine cake. Its scent suggests the warring emotions of her youth--fear, wonder, bewilderment--and we can almost smell it ourselves as Tran shows us the frictions between a long-suffering wife (Truong Thi Loc) and an idle husband (Tran Ngoc Trung), and the effects on their two traumatized sons. The couple has also lost to disease a daughter that would be just Mui's age, and her photograph haunts the servant girl almost as much as it haunts the dead child's fanatically devoted grandmother.
The time is 1951, but growing tensions with the French occupiers are suggested only by the distant drone of an occasional airplane. Far more apparent are the impacted dramas of Vietnamese class warfare: When little Mui watches the older boy (Do Nhat) trickle melted candle wax onto a colony of ants (the film sometimes has the precision of a nature documentary), she may sense the act's larger meaning; when she breaks an antique vase, she clearly fears the worst.
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In the film's second chapter, Mui has grown to age twenty (she's played here by a delicate beauty named Tran Nu Yen-Khe, who is also the director's girlfriend), and she's been shuttled off to the Europeanized household of a handsome pianist and composer named Khuyen (Vuong Hoa Hoi). While his brainless fiancee forever distracts him with coquettish demands, he deflects his own attraction to Mui. By Western standards, their eventual courtship is not just roundabout, but a masterpiece of bobs and feints. No Cinderella, Mui dares not even slip her foot for an instant into the jilted fiancee's golden sandal, and when the elaborate dinner she's prepared for the master is dismissed on a whim, she simply minces off to her back room.
There's a political as well as a sexual quotient in all of this, and it's cumulative: By suggestion and gesture, rather than loud word or blunt deed, Tran Anh Hung shows us some quiet secrets of Vietnamese culture, opens a door to a room many of us have no knowledge of.
Parallels will almost certainly be drawn between this film and Oliver Stone's noisier and more bombastic Heaven and Earth. So be it, for they are oddly complementary pieces--one a Vietnamese woman's odyssey seen largely from the American (which is to say, Stone's) viewpoint, the other a glimpse of the female Vietnamese soul by a native. Why choose? Together, the two films give us enough insight about people once presumed to be subhuman--at least by our government and military leaders--that both efforts now deserve our support.
Still, the authenticity and quiet grace of Green Papaya distinguish it in ways the obsessed Stone can only imagine. While war-ravaged cultures on both sides of the Pacific try to find peace within themselves, let us trust Tran Anh Hung, late of the Ecole Lumiere, to light the way.