The Scent of Green Papaya (Anh Hung Tran, 1993)

by Smart

This is a startlingly impressive debut film from Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran, and one of the first Vietnamese films to achieve international success. It follows the story of a young girl who spends her life working as a servant. There is a minimal amount of dialogue, especially from the protagonist who is nearly mute. This sets the mood of the film as one of quiet observation and distance. The young girl is an outsider, she is lower class, and as such her life is restricted and almost invisible. We never learn that much about her or her background, she is but a blank canvas with which to explore various socioeconomic issues. Our perspective is restricted to the confines of her life, although we are made well aware of the important political situation that is taking place in the background. A curfew is mentioned often, as it is 1951 and Vietnam is under French control. This is a heavy backdrop to a story that is focused primarily on the simple aspects of life as a servant, the dynamics of a class system and traditional family relations.

There is a meditative, nirvana emitting quality about The Scent of Green Papaya. A large amount of the film is dedicated to exploring intimate interactions with the natural world, ranging from insects to frogs to fruit. Extreme close-ups are used with grace and produce a number of striking, almost surreal images. The cinematography is very polished and is dominated by elaborate dolly shots which showcase the amazing complexity, size and detail of the sets. Shots with layered framing and multiple focus depths make up the majority, as almost every shot is maximized to allow multiple subjects to perform simultaneously. The score is beautiful and fitting, and has no problem switching from the playful to the serene to the ominous, sometimes all within a single scene. The narrative is perfectly paced, able to handle multiple storylines and characters without rush or convolution. This is a wonderfully conscious, exploratory film which blends the most miniscule elements of nature with the most grandiose ideas of human society.