The Scent of Green Papaya is a critically acclaimed film from Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung. The film premiered in 1993 and has garnered a strong cult following over the years. Mui, a ten year old girl, is the core character to the film's story. This entire tale revolves around her and takes us through her story as a child to becoming a young and desirable 20 year old woman. We first meet Mui as a servant girl working for an elderly mother who grew to love her like she was her own child. This motherly character teaches her how to cook meals, work around the house, and explains to her how such skills could help her as an adult.
The actress who portrays Mui at age 10 (Man San Lu) did a more effective job of crafting a compelling character than the actress portraying Mui at age 20 (Tran Nu Yen-Khe). There is more time spent developing the young Mui and less time is focused on re-introducing us to a 20 year old Mui. Time seems to slip by unnoticed and not every character featured during the first half of the film feels resolved story-wise, and that is an element I was disappointed in. The acting also seemed a bit stiff at times. In contrast, there is a sequence involving a different female character in the second half of the film that seemed quite overdramatic.
The score by Tiet Ton-That was excruciatingly inappropriate for this kind of film - it sounded as though a number of orchestral musicians were using claws to scratch their chords and unleash tunes that sounded closer to horrific than beautiful or charming. It just wasn't an element that I enjoyed, and it was an element that dramatically decreased my level of appreciation for the entire production.
There are a number of appealing production elements that I found particularly noteworthy. The costumes by Jean-Philippe Abril were effective at helping to recreate a feeling of a certain time and place. This element drew me in intently and was one of the greatest strengths of the film. The detailed stage designs used to recreate a 1950's Vietnam household served as impressive and memorable pieces that helped the film to excel.
The Scent of Green Papaya may actually feature some of the finest visuals I have ever seen in any feature film. This is a visually outstanding work of art. It likely deserved even more accolades and attention for the surprisingly lush cinematography by Benoit Delhomme and interesting framing from director Tran Anh Hung. It's just too bad that I wasn't drawn into the film by a more competent story or compelling characters. It created a disconnect that was rather jarring.
I would still strongly recommend the film as something to be viewed at least once by those who typically enjoy slow-moving art house films (a form of cinema which I can attest to being a fan of myself). I won't claim that this feature will appeal to every art house fan though as it certainly left me feeling a bit cold and distanced emotionally. The visuals seem to represent the entire experience of filmmaking that this particular work aimed for and delivered in (which it did - in spades).
Fans of the film will be delighted to know that the video presentation appears to be almost flawlessly impressive. It's hard to believe at times that this was even filmed using 35 mm film and was not made with state of the art high definition cameras. The print is free from distracting print damage or other print flaws. It's as close to perfection as one can expect from a transfer. There isn't even any distracting DNR or Edge Enhancement found in the transfer. The Scent of Green Papaya looks absolutely stellar in High Definition, presented with the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1:66:1 for the first time in North America. The presentation captures the essence of the gorgeous cinematography.
The audio is presented with a lush and downright enveloping uncompressed 2.0 track in the original Thai language. The detail in the audio is superb as it encompasses a lot of different sounds effectively - the sound of insects, the sound of cooking foods, and any other sounds that ultimately represent the environment featured in the film. Optional English subtitles are included.
The lack of substantial bonus materials was the biggest drawback found on this technically superior home media release. A Behind the Scenes featurette is the longest extra included and it only runs around 13 minutes. Frankly, it's an extra that is barely even worth a look for serious fans. The short featurette doesn't delve into the details of making the film but instead relies solely on showing clips from the feature in addition to snippets from during the filmmaking process. These clips might have been enjoyable with listenable audio, but without any audio portions to identify what exactly is being said, it makes it a rather dull addition. The original theatrical trailer and still photographs are also included on the disc.
The Scent of Green Papaya is a visual stunner of a film. Unfortunately, the exquisite visuals are not paired with a particularly interesting story or involving characters and that makes it more difficult to recommend with full enthusiasm. The beauty of the visuals will be powerful enough for some viewers to feel transported while others will be disappointed by the pacing and storytelling. This was an enjoyable film (for what it was), and yet it may have little to no replay value for some viewers. Newcomers should proceed with a test run first. Rent It.
Neil Lumbard is a lifelong fan of cinema, and a student who aspires to make movies. He loves writing, and currently does in Texas.