I am not sure I can think of a movie more beautiful to look at than The Scent of Green Papaya. The 1993 feature from Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, who recently adapted Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, is a sumptuous visual banquet of greens and reds and gold. Every frame is loaded with detail, near to the point of bursting, and yet every element is carefully chosen, it's never overloaded. The Scent of Green Papaya is a film that will cut away from its actors to an image of a garden fountain by way of transition. In the way a jungle is one massive ecosystem where each component relies on another for continued life, so too is the environment of Hung's film an intricately woven tangle of lives and objects.
Rather than a jungle, The Scent of Green Papaya's environment is a well-to-do home in Saigon in 1951. A ten-year-old girl named Mui (Lu Man San) has been sent there to alleviate the hardship in her family by working for another family who have suffered their own heartbreak. This family once had a daughter who passed away when she was Mui's age, and they have yet to recover. The patriarch of the home is also a philanderer who eventually leaves them high and dry. Mui grows up as both a servant and as a de facto member of the clan. The two little boys in the house both embrace and tease her, and the mother comes to see her as a kind of daughter herself.
All the more sad, then, when ten years later, the family can no longer afford to keep Mui and they send her to live with a wealthy friend. The girl, now 20 (and played by Tran Nu Yen-Khe), is now the servant for a quiet pianist and by extension his fiancée. In this new environment, a different image of Mui emerges. Away from her support system, on her own, she is inquisitive and shy. Her lack of education has not stifled her curiosity, and to push the metaphor further, she is like a nervous deer who has been transplanted from her familiar forest and delivered to the world of man. This section of the movie plays mostly without dialogue, as Mui slinks around corners and snoops through her new boss' things. He plays piano and keeps to himself, though he also watches his new resident. It's not long before his love shifts from his intended to Mui.
Admittedly, it's not much of a story, The Scent of Green Papaya is more like an extended ballad, a nostalgic ode to growing up and an evocation of another time. One can only imagine the tragedy that is to come and how the Vietnam War will effect any of these characters. Tran Anh Hung, who also wrote the script, doesn't inject any politics into the film--though, tellingly, The Scent of Green Papaya was shot entirely in Paris, adding further distance to this artistic exercise. One could easily interpret the outcome of the film, and Mui's unexpected liberation, as a subtle commentary on how true freedom is achieved. It doesn't require tanks or guns or even ideology, it merely requires knowledge.
The Scent of Green Papaya is not a film that is intended to move you in the way a more traditional plot-based narrative might. Rather, it is intended to stir the viewer emotionally, to seduce us with the sights and the sounds and make us connect and empathize and, really, to feel without thinking. Mui is an innocent, and through her eyes, we witness petty cruelty, conditional love, and then its counterpart, love with no strings attached. We stare and we listen and we simply watch, and the images and sounds move us along. If only our televisions could spritz us with smells, the sensory experience would be complete.
The Kino Blu-Ray for The Scent of Green Papaya is gorgeous. Colors are vibrant, and the 1080p resolution on the 1.66:1 anamorphic image is intense and sharp. Details run deep, and yet maintain a clarity regardless of their place in the frame or how much competition there is around them. Some of these scenes get pretty busy, yet you can count every leaf on a tree, every seed inside the papaya--and you can also see the differing textures. There are many beautiful scenes in close-up--Mui touching the inside of the fruit with her finger, or applying lipstick--that really showcase how finely rendered it all is. Skin tones look amazing, and the play between light and shadow is dazzling.
The multichannel Thai soundtrack is also given a lush, detailed make-over for Blu-Ray. The Scent of Green Papaya has as much going on in its audio as it does in its visuals. There is a constant sound of nature in the first half of the film, of chirping insects and other ambient noise, that creates an immersive effect, adding to the sense of these characters being isolated in their own world. This is matched in the second half by the piano music. The mix here is constant, working all around the viewer so that you feel as if you are in the thick of it. The tones are remarkable, with each little sound effect coming through distinct and clear.
There are optional English subtitles. They are unobtrusive and easy to read.
There aren't a lot of bonus features here, just a theatrical trailer, stills gallery, and a behind-the-scenes featurette. It is a vintage promo piece, it has not been created new for this release. The video is shown in full frame and shows its age. The whole thing clocks in at less than 13 minutes.
Highly Recommended. The Scent of Green Papaya is a gorgeous movie, one where the act of watching is almost more important than what you are watching. The 1993 Vietnamese drama is an elegiac tribute to a lost time, both romantic and personal, carefully planned and artfully executed. It's the kind of film ideal for a format like Blu-Ray, and this stunning presentation does not disappoint.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joëlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.