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With: Lu Man San, Tran Nu Yen-khe, Truong Thi Loc, Nguyen Anh Hoa, Vuong Hoa Hoi, Tran Ngoc Trung
Written by: Tran Anh Hung
Directed by: Tran Anh Hung
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Vietnamese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 104
Date: 05/01/1993
IMDB

The Scent of Green Papaya (1993)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Garden of Earthly Sunlight

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the early 1990s, movies from Asia began to turn up in American art house theaters; in 1993, three of them, Farewell My Concubine (Hong Kong), The Wedding Banquet (Taiwan), and The Scent of Green Papaya, from Vietnam, were nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. (The winner was Belle Epoque, from Spain.) The result of this is that Tran Anh Hung's extraordinary The Scent of Green Papaya was both overrated and underrated.

When the film opened in January of 1994, Roger Ebert gave it a four-star rating, but by the end of the year, the movie had failed to make his ten best list. Jonathan Rosenbaum gave the film a three-star rating and placed it on his ten best list, although it was listed as part of a twenty-way tie at number 10. Judy Stone, of the San Francisco Chronicle, eventually selected the film for her list of the 12 all-time best.

I suspect that people were noticing Tran's film, but perhaps comparing it to the other Asian films of the period, and finding it less compelling. Or perhaps the film just faded away after they saw it. Tran's film is based more on moods and emotions than on plot and dialogue, and -- especially for an untrusted first-time filmmaker -- this was perhaps a little too difficult to grasp. Some reviews complained of the "painstakingly slow progress of events" and called the film "maddeningly abstruse" and "more style than substance."

What's more, Tran's career has not gone in a particularly intriguing direction. He made two more excellent films much like this one, Cyclo (1995) and The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2001), then seemed to disappear. In 2009, he made an English-language debut with a Josh Hartnett movie, I Come with the Rain, which has not yet found U.S. distribution. Same with his next film Norwegian Wood (2010). Is Tran a one-trick pony, or is he a misunderstood genius that cannot convince businessmen of his talents?

I suppose it's too soon for an answer, but looking at Kino's new Blu-Ray for The Scent of Green Papaya, I know I will be eagerly awaiting more from this director. The film tells the story of a young servant girl, Mui (Lu Man San), who, at the age of 10, comes to work for a family. There are three boys, the youngest of which is fascinated with Mui, and shows his fascination by taunting her and teasing her. The wife runs a fabric shop, and her husband has been known to run away and spend the family's savings on women. This happens again shortly after Mui begins, and she is forced to help the family cut corners; the older servant woman teaches her to add salt to the meat dishes so that the family will fill up on rice.

Tran shoots without much dialogue, and he concentrates on moments, people looking and watching, taking in little details. People cook and serve, and learn and discover things. Mui likes to watch little frogs in the garden, or watch the gooey white sap dripping from the plants there. The movie has an open air feel, where the windows and doors seem to be open all the time, and the indoors and outdoors seamlessly mesh. (This is even more astounding when we learn that Tran shot the film in France, mainly on sound stages.) In a touching little subplot, a little old man comes around to inquire about the grandmother of the family; he has loved her his whole life, but she remained ever faithful to her late husband.

Most moviegoers will expect that Mui and the youngest boy will grow up and become attracted to one another, but Tran specifically avoids that plot thread. Ten years pass, and Mui grows into the gorgeous Tran Nu Yen-khe (who married the director and starred in his next three films). The lady of the house gives Mui a beautiful dress and some other things that would have belonged to the daughter that the family lost years ago. And then Mui leaves for another house, belonging to a composer. Here, she witnesses the composer's dead-end relationship with a high-maintenance lady, and the composer and Mui slowly fall in love with one another.

In one sequence, Mui tries on the dress and applies some lipstick she found under a pillow. The sequence is sensual beyond belief, narrowing itself to the shape and feel of fabric on skin. Of course, the sequence lingers and does not advance the "plot," and so many viewers probably grow restless at this late point in the film. But Tran does not care; Tran told reporters at the time that, after so many representations of Vietnamese as villains and peasants in war films, he wanted to show them as human. He does that not through romance or humor, but through simple, profound sensations.

Kino's 2011 Blu-Ray release is one of the best I have yet seen, mainly because of the detailed, intricate way it captures all the nuances in the settings. I suspect that a generation of people who only saw this on VHS or DVD will discover something new here. Extras include a very good little making-of featurette (presented in low-def), a trailer, and a stills gallery.