WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Tran Anh Hung's The Scent of Green Papaya is a sensual feast for the eyes, ears, and soul. It's like a poem onscreen. If your attention span has been stunted by decades of commercial television and Jerry Bruckheimer movies, you'd best steer clear of this one, which is more suited to those who are receptive to long periods of silence, patient studies of nature, and quiet displays of subtle human emotion.
The most striking aspect of The Scent of Green Papaya is its attention to the senses. The film is so obsessively focused on the characters' surroundings that plot becomes secondary. In fact, the plot is barely there: Mui (Lu Man San) is a young peasant girl beginning a lifetime of servitude in a Saigon household. Kindly old Thi (Nguyen Anh Hoa) walks her through her new domestic responsibilities and shares what little she knows about the sad history of the house's family. Upstairs, the family's matriarch mourns her long-dead husband, and grief perpetually drizzles like mist through the whole house. When the master leaves with all the money, the servants and the broken family all cope with the new sadness in different ways. The melancholy story plays out like the gloomy tune the father slowly strums on his guitar.
Despite the sorrow, Mui finds happiness all around her—in the crickets she keeps as pets, in the sounds and smells of ritualistic food preparation, in the delicate seeds deep inside the papaya. Her existence is like a flower growing amid ruin. The sullen and mean-spirited boys of the household stand in stark contrast to her spiritual optimism: They casually snuff out the lives of small animals and insects, and they do all they can to blot out Mui's happiness. But her light won't be dimmed.
The camera is always in flowing motion, catching subtle plays of light, soft breezes, quiet human movement. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme's compositions are appropriately delicate. The Scent of Green Papaya is a beautifully produced film.
My one complaint about the film is that it abruptly changes course toward the end, taking Mui out of the household in which she spends her youth and depriving us of any conclusion—literal or abstract—to that story. Instead, Mui finds herself the servant of a man whom she loves, and a too-quick romance develops. In the end, as her new lover teaches her to read, and a jilted fiancée erupts in violence, the film has become something else, something not as profound as what came before.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Columbia Tri-Star presents The Scent of Green Papaya in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The fullframe image is generally sharp, but the background lacks detail and is consistently soft. The print showed occasional specks and scratches, but not to the point of distraction. Importantly, the film's naturalistic color palette is accurately rendered.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The DVD's 2.0 soundtrack is generally centered at the screen, but I noticed subtle stereo effects across the front soundstage and very subtle surround activity—insects buzzing, breezes whistling, nature going about its business. Dialog is sparse but sounds natural. The sound of food cooking is so realistic, you can smell and taste it. In a few places, the screech of an aircraft felt way out of place in this gentle film.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
All you get are three theatrical trailers: The Scent of Green Papaya, The Vertical Ray of the Sun, and the strangely incongruous Farinelli.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
If you're in the right mindset, you'll derive a great deal from this surprisingly spiritual film. Its flavors, scents, and textures will get under your skin.