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.
There are optional English subtitles. They are unobtrusive and easy to read.